In his acceptance speech, Dr. Howell Wechsler gives a nod to heroes, shares DASH history, and issues a challenge to ASHA

Posted on October 10, 2012


Dr. Howell Wechsler, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, accepted ASHA’s highest honor, the William A. Howe Award, on October 10, 2012 in San Antonio. Here is the full text of his acceptance speech:

Good evening and thank you all for this absolutely terrific honor. Thank you to the Award Committee, to the leadership and staff of ASHA, and to the entire association. I know that when you honor me with this award you are truly honoring the work of the entire Division of Adolescent and School Health at CDC. It has been my great privilege and joy to work with the brilliant, dedicated, hard-working, and passionate public health professionals who comprise the staff of DASH.

I love ASHA. I am so proud of the fact that during my 8 years as Director of DASH, and in fact my 18 years of working at DASH, I have made sure that I have attended almost every single ASHA conference. They wouldn’t let me go to Hawaii that year…and I missed one or two due to family obligations, but that’s about it. I have always believed that if you care about school health, this is the place to be. ASHA’s annual meeting never fails to educate me, to challenge me, to inspire me…and all the hugs are sweet too. Throughout my tenure as director of DASH, I have strongly encouraged our staff to attend and to present at the ASHA conference…and I will always be very proud of the one year when we were able to arrange the joint ASHA and DASH conferences back to back in Kansas City.

I am so very honored to join the list of Howe Award recipients, quite a few of whom are dear friends and professional heroes.

I hope that you will indulge me as I take a few minutes to recognize some of the individuals who have inspired me and made my career possible. The easiest part of writing this speech was figuring out my first hero to recognize. For above all others, there is one man on whose shoulders I stand, one leader who blazed the path for all our work in DASH. And, of course, that man is the guy who created DASH, the Division’s founder and long-term director, and a How Award winner himself, Dr. Lloyd Joseph Kolbe. Lloyd is a brilliant intellectual and theorist…his model of coordinated school health and his extensive legacy of scholarly articles have profoundly shaped our field and my thinking. But it is as a man of action that I believe Lloyd has left his greatest mark. You see, back in the late 1980s Lloyd was working in an obscure CDC office with only one or two staffers. Then he got the notion that the national attention that people like Rock Hudson and Magic Johnson had brought to the AIDS epidemic provided the perfect opportunity to push CDC to establish a division that would help the Nation’s schools play a substantial role in preventing AIDS. But his brilliant idea was that this division would also build the capacity of schools to address the other critical health problems facing our Nation’s young people. And he seized that opportunity. And he used all his powers of persuasion.

And he dug his heels in. And he dug his heels in some more. Until finally, they relented. And CDC gave Lloyd what he had been pushing for. And thus was born the Division of Adolescent and School Health, which for the past 25 years has supported national, state, and local efforts to implement strong school health programs.

I am totally biased, of course, but I do believe that DASH’s work has done a world of good for millions of American children. And for that we must thank the vision and tenacity of Lloyd Kolbe.

The second person I must recognize is the guy who introduced me to Lloyd Kolbe: my teacher, my former boss, my dissertation advisor, my colleague, and most importantly, one of my best friends in the world and my brother from the Bronx…Dr. Chuck Basch, Professor of Health Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Chuck gave me a terrific job opportunity after I got my masters degree and made it possible for me to get my doctorate. More than anyone else, he taught me about scientific rigor, professional integrity, and the imperative to do everything humanly possible to get it right. One of the happiest moments in my career was when I got to introduce Chuck last year when he delivered the keynote address at ASHA.

Chuck’s return to the field of school health after a 20 year hiatus with his magnificent manuscript on health and academic achievement and the many keynote addresses on the topic that he has been doing across the country is, I believe, one of the most positive developments this field has seen in recent years.

Much of my inspiration for a career in school health came from my family. My first inspiration was my mother, Marilyn Serebin Herman, who taught health education and physical education in New York City public schools. And how cool was it that my Mom was one of the early teachers of Family Living Including Sex Education! Thanks, Mom, for being a role model…and for having all those books with neat pictures that I used to “borrow” so I could teach the facts of life to the other fellows on the block! Another inspiration was my late Aunt Arlene Goldstein, whose work as a consumer health care advocate in New York City inspired me to care about public health and social justice…may her memory be a blessing forever. Perhaps my greatest inspiration has been my 5 children who always provided terrific, ongoing feedback to all my school health ideas…as they were growing up, they were a great laboratory for me and from the get go they taught me what was truly important in life. And a special thank you to my beloved Laurie for sharing this sweet moment with me and bringing so much joy and love into my life.

As director of DASH, I have had the privilege of being involved in the entire wide range of activities that the Division supports, including surveillance, evaluation, health communication, health policy, professional development, and program development and support. All of these activities are critical to the mission of promoting the health of young people through schools. Tonight I’d like to highlight just a few of my favorite activities at DASH that I think might be very relevant to the powerful role that ASHA can play in supporting school health programs nationwide.

My very first job at DASH was to write the Guidelines for School Programs to Promote Lifelong Healthy Eating, DASH’s guidelines for school nutrition. This was one of the earlier DASH research synthesis projects that developed science-based guidelines for programs. Our field of school health suffers from a serious paucity of high quality intervention research. This fact puts DASH at a great disadvantage in competing with other CDC divisions for resources. It would be a very good thing if DASH and ASHA and all interested researchers came together and identified the most urgent priorities for school health intervention research and then brainstormed ideas for how we could locate resources to support the highest priority research.

But in the meantime, we have got to make sense of the research that does exist, we have got to provide the field with the best guidance for program implementation that the scientific evidence allows. I’m very proud of the contributions DASH has made in developing the science of research synthesis and in delivering very practical, science-based guidance to school practitioners. This work is critical to the field. There was a time when ASHA also was doing this kind of work…certainly, other professional organizations do this for their fields. I hope that, as ASHA develops in the years to come, it builds the capacity and locates the resources to play a meaningful role in school health guidelines development based on rigorous research synthesis.

Next I’d like to take you back to 1996. At DASH I was providing support to my dear colleague Marlene Tappe as she developed DASH’s school guidelines for promoting physical activity. One evening I went to open school night for one of my kids at his middle school. They’d have the parents follow the kids’ schedule and spend 10 minutes or so in each class hearing from the teacher. I was excited to get to his PE class cause I’d been reviewing Marlene’s manuscript and had a pretty good idea what the state of the art in the field was. So the PE teacher introduces himself, speaks for a minute…and then has nothing else to say.

Every other class needed a lot more time than the 10 minutes allocated but this guy was done after 60 seconds. When the bell mercifully rang, I couldn’t get up. I was overwhelmed, paralyzed into inaction because there were so many things wrong, so many changes that needed to be made, I couldn’t even imagine where to begin. That’s when I realized that we needed to translate our guidelines into some kind of practical assessment and planning tool so I could go down a list and one by one figure out where to begin, what were the most important things to improve first. Eureka! Thus was born the idea for a tool that came to be known as the School Health Index. The SHI has inspired a lot of similar tools which all together have made it a heck of a lot easier for schools to implement evidence-based practices. I’m very proud of the work that DASH has done in developing these practical implementation tools, like the SHI and the HECAT and PECAT. A great many schools and school districts are using these and similar science-based tools for school health…but not nearly enough. I think that a professional organization such as ASHA can make a huge contribution by very actively promoting the use of science-based implementation tools.

Now, if anyone from DASH is in the audience, I imagine that right around now they must be asking themselves, “So when is he going to put in a plug for School Health Profiles?” It’s now.

DASH’s least known surveillance system, School Health Profiles, has long been a pet cause of mine for several reasons. It provides state and city data on the percentage of secondary schools in a given jurisdiction that are implementing effective school health practices like the ones recommended in CDC’s school health guidelines. I have long believed that this is an essential system for measuring the performance of agencies funded by CDC and it is absolutely critical that we demonstrate that school health programs can be held accountable in meaningful ways. The Profiles data are also great fun to play with because there is often a truly gigantic range in the prevalence of schools implementing good health practices from one state to another. We’ve made a strong push for states and cities to participate in Profiles in recent years and have gotten quality data from just about every state, which has enabled us to develop color-coded maps that powerfully illustrate which states are doing well and which not so well on implementing a variety of critical school health practices. These maps have become a very powerful tool for advocacy because nothing gets states going like being shown up by neighboring states. I urge ASHA members to embrace and champion the concept of performance measurement for school health programs. And I urge you to get to know the Profiles data and the Profiles maps and to use them to make the case for effective school health practices in your state.

Finally, I want to highlight the pioneering role that DASH has played in getting the Nation’s education sector to accept that promoting student health is a fundamental part of the mission of our schools. Our strategies have included the direct funding of health promotion programs in education agencies and educator professional organizations; funding requirements, incentives, and technical assistance to foster collaboration between education and public health agencies; and in recent years I have been particularly proud of the leadership role that DASH has played in marshaling the scientific evidence documenting the strong links between student health and academic achievement.

But this struggle continues. Despite all the accumulating evidence on the relationship between health and education, despite the growing unpopularity of our schools’ over-emphasis on standardized testing, despite all the amazing work done by school health programs funded by CDC and others, getting buy-in from education agencies remains the most fundamental challenge to the success of our school health movement. We will continue to work hard to convince educators that Health is Academic, and we need ASHA to play a strong role in making this case as well.

So, if you’re keeping score, I have challenged ASHA to play a more active role in developing guidelines, promote the use of guidelines implementation tools, champion performance measurement and School Health Profiles data, and make the case for education agencies to support school health programs. As always, I look forward to hearing your reactions to these ideas…and, of course, I look forward to hearing your challenges to us at CDC on what else we could be doing to strengthen school health programs nationwide.

I deeply appreciate getting this award at this time. With this award you are sending a message that ASHA believes that the federal government has not only a role to play but an obligation to use its unique capacity to help schools improve the health of students. By honoring DASH, you are sending a message that school health programs need to be evidence-based and driven by data, not ideology. You are sending a message that the most effective approach to meet the health needs of students is not a narrow, categorical approach, but rather a holistic, cross-cutting approach that addresses the needs of the whole child.

By honoring DASH, you are sending a message that the public health and education sectors need to break down the silos in which we work and come together to best serve our children. You are sending a message that the coordinated school health program is still a vital idea that, for the love of our children, we need to implement across the Nation.

And I pledge to you that we who work on school health at CDC will continue working hard. There is no time, no room for discouragement or burnout. We will keep on bouncing back with new ideas, new strategies, new partnerships, new guidelines, new tools for schools, new groundbreaking data analyses, new efforts to bring the education and public health sectors together. Our enthusiasm, our passion for helping the Nation’s schools improve the health of our children will not wane. It must not, it can not.

Because we understand that our Nation needs high quality, coordinated school health programs to ensure a stronger, brighter future. Because we know that our work at CDC, just like your work with ASHA, supports not just individual programs but a nationwide school health movement.

Because we know how blessed we are to wake up every morning and go to work to make the world a better place for our children. And what cause could be greater than making the world a better place for our children? It is a privilege for me to serve in that cause with all of you…thank you so much for honoring me with the William A. Howe Award.

Posted in: 2012 Conference