In this post, I focus on the national habit of turning to schools to solve social problems, in this case child and adult obesity. What has happened in the past two years since I published this post (August 23, 2009) has been a sharp increase in anti-obesity campaigns led by First Lady Michelle Obama and more research studies that both strengthen and challenge the school’s role in battling obesity.
The short answer to the question in the title is no. The long answer is this post.
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.“
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?