What is more important than health?
Nothing, says the California Assn. of School Health Educators.
To make its point, the 230-member association recently completed an informal survey of health classes in six Southeast-area secondary schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which showed that only one in five health classes was taught by teachers with a major or minor in health education.
The survey reviewed the credentials of 58 teachers teaching 153 health classes in seventh and 10th grades at Gage, South Gate and Nimitz junior high schools and South Gate, Huntington Park and Bell high schools. Ten of the teachers had a major or minor in health, the study found. The rest typically had credentials in physical education, science and biology that allow them to teach health without extensive training in the field.
This situation is not uncommon in health classes statewide, said Persida Drakulich , director of the school health program for the state Department of Education. Still, she said, "it is not correct that anyone can teach health."
Nor is the problem confined to California. A 1983 Carnegie Foundation Report on Secondary Education in America said that "many young people appear shockingly ignorant about their bodies. Alcohol abuse is rising, particularly among youths. Teen-age pregnancies increase . . .. Clearly, no knowledge is more crucial than knowledge about health."
Unfortunately, the report notes, "too few teachers specialize in health education. Too frequently such courses are assigned to physical education teachers who tend to have very limited background in this field."
Members of the health educators association say specialized training is essential for teaching the ever-changing and often controversial subjects found in a good health course. Those topics include drugs, abortion, sex education, alcohol, disease, nutrition, family life, suicide, rape prevention and first aid.
"We are cheating the students out of a good health education by not having qualified health-educated teachers," said association president Pat Norton, chairman of the health department at South Gate High School. Association members said they plan to present their survey to the Los Angeles school board to emphasize the need for more credentialed health teachers in the classroom.
Health is "low on the totem pole" because "you don't see the results today, and people want that tangible evidence," said Ric Loya, health department chairman at Huntington Park High and a lecturer on health at several state and private universities. Schools can demonstrate that students have learned to read, add and subtract, Loya said, but cannot show that a student is healthier for taking a health course.
Moreover, he said, "people don't think of health until they're sick . . . and they don't think of health education until it's too late."
Teachers Hard to Find
But administrators at Southeast-area schools in the survey expressed confidence in their health programs, arguing that a mature, experienced teacher can teach any subject, including health. In order to provide enough classes in health, they said, it is often necessary to draw on teachers without a major or minor in the field. Moreover, they claimed, health teachers are hard to find.
"You make use of what you have," said Nimitz Junior High School Principal Frank Armendariz. "If that teacher's bright, he can teach almost anything." The health classes do not suffer, he said, because "there's subject matter that has to be covered, and that's what's covered." Of 41 health classes at Nimitz, the survey reported only four were taught by a teacher with a credential in health.
Carol Gorton, assistant principal at South Gate Junior High, said she looks for "well-rounded, well-adjusted and mature" people to teach the course.
"They can adapt the subject matter or learn it," she said. Besides, she added, "health teachers are rare specimens."
Requirements for a health science credential include courses in statistics, chemistry, anatomy, communication skills and multicultural values as well as health counseling, strategies for promoting health, accident prevention, use and misuse of drugs and mental-emotional health.
The assumption administrators make "is that there is no content, no body of knowledge" involved in teaching health, "and that's baloney," said Peter Cortese, a health professor and associate dean of the School of Applied Arts and Sciences at Cal State Long Beach.
Although a physical education teacher may be authorized to teach health, Cortese said, that teacher is required to take only one general course on health--the same course required of teachers in all fields.