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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Can Schools Reduce Obesity in Children and Youth?

Public schools have been drafted again and again to fight national problems (e.,g., racial segregation, teenage pregnancy, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, and drug use). Americans believe that schools must be part of any solution to social problems. This idea is deeply embedded in the American psyche and schooling practices. It has led to educators adopting actual courses and curriculum materials to remedy national social problems. Three-fourths of U.S. schools have programs that discourage cigarette smoking and drinking alcohol.

Consider obesity.

Imagine civic, business, and foundation leaders so worried about the social and individual costs of health problems that overweight children would face as adults that they wanted schools to fight a war on fat. Imagine, further, that these policy elites, ginning up a crusade against fat children, wanted to solve the problem now. Would they follow Singapore?

Beginning in the early 1990s, Singapore operated an obesity-reduction program called “Trim and Fit.” School officials identified overweight young students and compelled them to join a “health club.” In these “clubs,” teachers instructed chubby students to run, jump rope, and do other exercises. They received “calorie cash” coupons for school meals that would not exceed the number of calories stamped on the ticket. Lunches were monitored to reduce soft drinks, French fries, and high-caloric foods. Teachers measured students’ height, weight, and body mass monthly. The government awarded cash to schools that found new ways for students to shed pounds. According to government records, these “health clubs” and incentives reduced the proportion of overweight students from 14 percent in 1992 to 10 percent in 2003.

Serious drawbacks to this campaign arose, however. The head of physical education at the elite Singapore Chinese Girls’ Primary School said that “to keep them in the club for a long time is bad for their self-esteem because there’s a stigma tied to it.” In 2007, the government ended the program even after substantial reductions in overweight children, because policymakers–spurred by parents’ and educators’ critiques–concluded that the psychological costs to “club” students of being bullied and teased unrelentingly outweighed (yes, a bad pun) program gains. Singaporean culture, centralized national authority, and a decided preference for social control nearly guarantee that this program would not fly in the U.S.

So look at another possibility.

Imagine that President Joe Biden signed the Leave No Pound Untouched Act, a variation of No Child Left Behind legislation of 2002, to prevent increased incidence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other crippling diseases associated with obesity. Yes, it is a huge leap in imagining, but humor me.

The Act would give government officials the authority to use the Physical Fitness Test (it does exist in California) as a lever to reduce fatness. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) standards would be set and, if met, schools would be identified as “fit and trim.” Those schools that failed to meet standards would be rated “unfit” and if those schools continued to fail, they would be closed. State, district, and school officials would make public all of the above information, particularly the poundage gap between trim and unfit schools.

In schools eager to meet standards, principals and teachers would identify those students close to their expected body mass index (BMI) or just a few pounds overweight. These students would have the best chance to pass the Physical Fitness Test. Extra physical education sessions would be scheduled for them to run laps on ball fields, practice body curls, push-ups, and pull-ups. All school vending machines containing candy, sugary sodas, and chips would be replaced with ones dispensing carrots, celery sticks, and sugarless drinks and candy. Low-calorie, tasty lunches would be served daily.

Even were this implausible scenario of a moral crusade and federal law to occur in the U.S., the spread of obesity among children would continue unabated since the causes of obesity are hardly located within schools between 8AM and 4 PM.

Consider other causes. The lack of concerted federal action since the 2001 Surgeon General’s Call to Action on obesity underscore the inherent conflicts between food industry profits and federally-led campaigns promoting healthy eating. Moreover, the hours children watch television, how little or how much money families have to spend on food, and a dozen other reasons anchored in personal, social class, and cultural norms encourage obesity. Schools, at best, are only a carrot sitting on a plate of chocolate eclairs.

 

Direct action focused on changing children and adult behavior similar to past and current anti-smoking campaigns is needed, not only relying upon schoolhouse lessons and nutritious lunches. Muscular action from the Surgeon General’s office, anti-obesity groups lobbying for legislation to tax high-calorie soft drinks, and banning fast food industry ads targeted at minors are some measures that have at least a chance to stem the tide of fat spilling over the nation.

Instead, policymakers, educators, and researchers offer limited programs that increase physical activity in schools. More and longer gym classes. Exhorting students to walk up and down staircases, run around the school track and do laps in swimming pools.

This America dilemma, a conflict between food industry profits and healthy eating, is obvious. Add further to these conflicting values parental expectations that primary and secondary schools have strong academic programs preparing students to graduate and enter college. Such conflicts reveal anew the bind educators find themselves in when parents and policymakers ask them to get overweight children to lose pounds.

Expecting schools to reduce obesity only repeats the dismal history of foisting national social problems onto schools and substituting high hopes for direct action. Those high expectations for what public schools can do to alter individual behavior insofar as teenage pregnancy, cigarette smoking, and drinking alcohol have appeared again in campaigns to reduce obesity in children and youth. Asking schools to reduce waistlines says more about the hopes of parents and policymakers than what schools can actually do. Obesity is a national health problem that requires more than poster campaigns and curriculum materials.

 

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...