Skip to Content

Arnold School of Public Health

HPEB’s Katrina Walsemann receives grant to contribute to the enhancement of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation county health rankings

September 5, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

Katrina Walsemann, an associate professor in the Arnold School’s health promotion, education, and behavior (HPEB) department, has been awarded nearly $100K to play a key role in improving the RWJF county health rankings. The one-year research grant is funded through the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps program, a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Walsemann’s project, Creating a School Quality Indicators Database to Enhance the RWJF County Health Rankings, aims to create a contextual database that includes county-level indicators of school quality, school segregation, and academic achievement using data from all public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.

“Schools are one of the most important sites of social, cultural, and racial reproduction in the United States,” says Walsemann. “Yet, population health research often ignores school quality and school segregation when examining the ways in which education matters for health, in part because such data is not easily accessible.”

The rankings currently rely on two measures of educational attainment: high school graduation rate in each county and percentage of county residents who have attended some college. “These measures do not fully capture aspects of, and often mask heterogeneity in, school quality and context that are important for building healthy communities and reducing racial and class inequities in health,” explains Walsemann. “By developing a user-friendly database that includes theoretically and empirically informed measures of school quality and context, our project will provide county health officials and policy makers with a valuable tool to assess how investments in public education contribute to health and health equity in their own community and state and where they might invest limited resources to improve population health.”

The resulting database will also yield a novel data resource for the research community, which will facilitate significant advances in understanding of how inequities in school quality and context influence health and mortality across the life course. Researchers and practitioners can then expand efforts to address the social determinants of population health and build a culture of health. 

“The current education measures available in  the county health rankings reflect differences in educational attainment, but the new measures reflect differences in public investment in our schools—something that policy makers and local county officials have a stake in and have the power to influence,” says Walsemann. “The creation of this database, therefore, has the potential to make school rankings more relevant to a strategic set of new partners by measuring aspects of school quality and segregation that are modifiable, easily understandable, and vitally important to many community members. Such school-level factors provide necessary contextual information from which to assess whether a county is doing its utmost to promote the health of its people, particularly children.”

The database can also be used to encourage policymakers to think more broadly about the social and economic factors that help build a culture of health and reduce health inequities. “Our project will provide evidence about how inequities in school quality are related to population health, thus, giving policymakers and county officials the knowledge they need to make empirically informed decisions and create buy-in from their constituents,” she says. “Indeed, social movements and policy changes often emerge only after such inequities are identified and dialogue between community members and policy makers are opened. Thus, the addition of school quality data will fill a critical gap in the RWJF County Health Rankings by improving the way it measures the social and economic factors within the culture of health framework.”


Researchers examine which groups of parents take on educational debt for their children and how much

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.