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Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal


Volume 5: No. 2, April 2008

Parental Education Key to Health for Parents and Children


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Suggested citation for this article: Appleton-Arnaud J. Parental education key to health for parents and children [letter]. Prev Chronic Dis 2008;5(2).
. Accessed [date].

To the Editor:

Although the goal of reducing school dropout rates is laudable and would surely produce many of the benefits suggested by Freudenberg and Ruglis (1), the simple truth is that this approach will not produce the most benefit for the effort and funding required. There are two reasons for this. First, the history of public education policy is littered with failed attempts to tackle the problem of high-school dropouts in a variety of communities. Second, there is a surer route to improving health by increasing literacy: educate parents. This strategy will also increase the likelihood of children staying in school.

As long-time advocates of adult education, we know about the close relationship between educational attainment and health. U.S. death rates overall and for specific diseases such as cancer and heart disease are higher (in some cases more than double) for adults with less than 12 years of education than they are for people with more than 12 years of education (2). Low literacy levels add an estimated $73 billion to health care costs per year (3).

Just as important, however, are the effects that the educational level of parents have on their children's level of education. Children flourish when their parents have basic literacy skills, functional English, and high school credentials (4,5). Moreover, children whose parents have not completed high school and who are unemployed are five times more likely to drop out of school than are the children of parents who have completed high school and who are gainfully employed (6). The factor that most strongly correlates with the educational achievement of children is the educational achievement of their parents (7). Research findings strongly suggest that attempting to stem dropout rates at the point of exit is a mistaken strategy. Instead, efforts should be directed at ensuring that parents are equipped to inspire, encourage, support, and nurture the educational efforts of their children.

To produce the benefits suggested by Freudenberg and Ruglis, a strong investment in adult basic education (General Educational Development [GED] programs, adult literacy classes, and English-for-speakers-of-other-languages [ESOL] programs) would produce benefits for adults and children: they would assist adults in improving their own lives and health, which would lead to a home environment for children in which they would have the greatest opportunity to succeed.

Joanne Appleton-Arnaud, PhD
Executive Director
Boston Adult Literacy Fund
Boston, Massachusetts

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  1. Freudenberg N, Ruglis J. Reframing school dropout as a public health issue. Prev Chronic Dis 2007;4(4). Accessed September 25, 2007.
  2. Life lessons: studying education's effect on health. Facts of Life 2002;7(12).*
  3. Neyer JR, Greenlund KJ, Deny CH, Keenan NL, Casper DR, Labarthe DR, et al. Prevalence of stroke: United States, 2005. JAMA 2007;298:279-81.
  4. Brooks D. Psst! Human capital. New York Times 2005 November 13, Op Ed.*
  5. Grosse N, Auffrey C. Literacy and health statistics in developing countries. Am Rev Public Health 1989:10;281-97.
  6. Bickerton R. Adult education and literacy fact sheet. Washington (DC): National Council of State Directors of Adult Education;2007.*
  7. Lara-Cinisomo S, Pebley AR, Vaiana ME, Maggio E, Berends M, Lucas SR. A matter of class. Rand Review 2004;28(3):10-5.

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The opinions expressed by authors contributing to this journal do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions. Use of trade names is for identification only and does not imply endorsement by any of the groups named above.


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