Can Schools Stop Kids from Getting Fat?

The short answer is no. The long answer is this post and next one.


The cliche that when the nation has a cold, the schools sneeze remains true when it comes to the media-hyped frenzy over obesity. In the past, moral crusades often led to public schools getting drafted to help solve the problems. Too much drunkenness? Too much smoking? Far too many auto accidents? Teens having babies? Public schools must do something to remedy the problem. Historians of education call this the “educationalizing of social problems. (David Labaree, 2009)

Since the early 1900s, states have mandated that children and youth sit through classroom lessons that teach the ill effects of drinking alcohol, smoking, and having unprotected sex. None of these school ventures into problem-solving, I should add, arose because research studies demonstrated that a new curriculum and dynamite lessons would make a difference in youth behavior. New policies were morally-driven interventions triggered by elite consensus and women-led campaigns to change social behavior. Crusades need neither medical evidence nor research studies to prove that schools should be in the business of changing self-destructive behavior.

When one looks at the statistics on schools’ success in changing youth drinking, drug, and sexual behavior, however, the record is dismal. But what about smoking? The sharp reduction in adult and youth smoking in the past four decades came from warning notices on cigarette packs (1966), extensive lobbying by anti-smoking groups to get legislation, raising taxes on cigarettes, and banning ads and sales to minors. Direct action focused on changing adult behavior, not schoolhouse lessons.

Battling against harmful individual behavior is not the only war well-intentioned elites have enlisted schools to fight. The Cold War struggle between the U.S. and Soviet Russia in the late 1950s led to the National Defense Education Act (1958) and more science and math teachers. A short-lived War on Poverty produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) charging schools to rid poor children of low academic achievement. Fears of losing in global economic competition prompted the Nation at Risk report in 1983. Since then, federal and state officials have mobilized schools to be an arm of the economy in preparing students for an information-driven labor market. Judging by current statistics on poverty, unemployment, and recessions schools have been singularly unsuccessful in solving these social and economic problems. No one reputable I know, for example, has argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s was due to the success of U.S. science and math teachers.

And now there is another drama unfolding where schools have been dragged into a crusade against fat children. Another problem educationalized. Redefining obesity as an epidemic and therefore a public health problem (e.g., higher incidence of diabetes, cardiac problems) is again a morally-charged mission to solve a national problem. Turning personal behavior into a public health problem opens wallets to fund efforts to get rid of the causes of obesity and easily leads to drafting schools to stop kids from getting fat.

These crusades that draft schools to change individual and national behavior are great theater for American audiences to watch but once the media lose interest and the finger on the remote changes the channel, those behaviors persist. When it comes to the obesity epidemic, surely school officials sending home reports on their children’s weight, providing nutritious lunches, banning soft drink vending machines, and increasing time spent in physical education are helpful efforts but these well-intentioned moves have hardly changed eating habits before and after six hours in schools. What might schools do if they were serious about reducing the number of fat kids?



Filed under school reform policies

2 responses to “Can Schools Stop Kids from Getting Fat?

  1. Ciaran Sugrue

    Well, as one just returned from vacation– holidays this side of the Atlantic! — I have a certain sympathy with the challenge to schools re over indulgence in a combination of food and drink, and I’m not looking forward either to the challenge of doing something re my expanding girth! Nevertheless, I am painfully aware that nobody else is going to take on this challenge, and while emails from my gym encouraging me to ‘bring a friend’ may be a short term incentive, the problem is mine.
    As yet, I’ve only read the initial entry on obesity and recognise the hand of Larry Cuban in terms of tracking historical moments in the reform process along a chronological continuum, it is very US-centric, not surprisingly, but I wonder if efforts elsewhere are equally dismal? Additionally, there is a politics of obesity, and having waded through the statistical undergrowth of ‘The Spirit Level’ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009) while on vacation, I am accutely aware that obesity is a class and health issue also as well as being highly political. So, as the Obama administration steps into the minefield of health care provision for all in the US, the epidemiologists will be enabled to track the relationship between better health care and the (possible) decline in obesity– inequality is a ‘weighty’ issue– no pun intended!

    • larrycuban

      Hi Ciaran,
      I surely cannot help you lose vacation poundage but I could use help on other countries’ efforts to tackle obesity through public schools. I know of Singapore’s efforts and after nearly a decade of school-approved programs targeting overweight children and showing overall reductions in obesity among students, they dropped the program, however, because of public opposition to the stigma and teasing following those students who were enrolled in weight-reduction classes. Comparing and contrasting the U.S.’s approach in schools to those of other nations would be helpful to me and readers. Thanks for raising the point.

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