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Baker Heads Project to Study Link Between Formal Schooling and Everyday Health Risk

News release about David Baker's $700,000 grant to study link between education and health risk

by Joe Savrock (November 2008)

baker_sml.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A College of Education faculty member is heading a new $700,000 project to test how formal schooling influences reasoning and decision-making skills for navigating everyday health risk. 

David P. Baker, professor of education and sociology, is heading the research project, which combines cognitive science and the psychology of decision making with the cross-cultural sociology of education. The two-year grant, funded by the National Science Foundation, runs from Oct. 1, 2008 to Sept. 30, 2010.

The project is titled “Explaining the Education Effect and the Demography of Risk: Comparing Unschooled and Schooled on Everyday Reasoning and Decision-making Skills about Health Behavior.” Co-investigators are Paul Eslinger, professor of neurology at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center; Martin Benavides, a researcher with the Group for Analysis of Development, a development research organization in Lima, Peru; and Ellen Peters, senior research scientist with Decision Research, a research group in Eugene, Ore.

Baker notes that most demographers and health researchers acknowledge that formal schooling has a positive influence on health outcomes, but the reason for this influence is not clearly understood. It is hypothesized, he says, that schooling enhances a person’s reasoning skills, resulting in improved risk assessment and decision-making related to everyday health issues.

The researchers were part of a previous team that developed the Schooling-Decision-Making Model, which tests the relation between formal education and health risk. The new project extends the model’s application to the populace of the Andes region of Peru.

The project compares unschooled and moderately schooled adults in Peru on their numeracy ability, cognitive skill, reasoning about risk, and decision-making skills related to health behaviors. Local conditions in the Peruvian Andes allow for a naturally occurring experiment on the effects of education. “This will be the first time that we will be able to extensively test the fundamental impact of how schooling influences the way people think, and then how these thinking skills influence major decisions in their lives,” says Baker.

It is hoped that the project will encourage the design of more effective education for those regions of the world that are still lacking health benefits that could help them emerge from extreme poverty conditions and promote long-term development.