from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Less is better? Schools and health 

I have little time to blog right now. I am sick, must still teach because students have an AP exam on Tuesday, and have commitments I must honor this weekend. Part of why I am sick is that I try to do too much, and live with too much stress. I thought about this while reading several things the past few days.

I read about the comparison on health between British and American people, where the wealthiest third of Americans are less healthy than the poorest third of Brits. Then this morning I read Paul Krugman’s musings on this subject. For the rest of this brief posting, I will describe briefly those musings, add one additional piece of news, and then offer a very few of my own thoughts.

Krugman notes that the difference in health is not completely determined by whether or not Americans have health insurance. In the case of diseases like diabetes American insurance companies seem loath to pay for the preventive measure that could reduce the effects of the disease and more than happy to pay for the radical treatment that may become necessary, such as amputations. Thus he posits that the big difference between the health of the people in the two nations is the level of stress, and focuses on the fact that the average American works about 46 weeks per year while the average Brit only 41.
I will return to this concept in a bit.

The additional piece of information is the recent decision by the major softdrink manufacturers that they will, under prodding by Bill Clinton and others, move to remove all sugar-added drinks from schools. There has a been a great concern about the level of obesity and other health problems we are seeing among our school children, and at ever younger ages. Thus most people will applaud this action, although I will offer a caution.

One reason our students drink such things as Coke and sugar added juices is that the need the sugar to get through the school day. We run 5 lunches in our 8 period days. If a student has the earliest lunch, which is 3rd period from 10:10-10:55, by the time the final period starts at 2:20 that student is often dragging, out of energy, unable to focus.

We have had many advocates of lengthening our school day. We are seeing recess and physical education limited to provide more time for instruction, which - like the lengthening of the day - is intended to improve test scores. We are hurtling down a path of ever increasing requirements in the name of greater rigor. We have people arguing for more challenging courses, and more homework, and even lengthening our school year. I think in the process we are killing our school children.

We are subjecting them to ever increasing amounts of stress at ever decreasing ages, even as we know for certainty that above a certain level stress is harmful. In the process we already see evidence that we killing their desire and enthusiasm for learning, and if we think even a bit critically we will also see that we are creating patterns of behavior and health that are quite likely to lead to serious health problems earlier in life, inevitably diminishing the quality of life they enjoy and shortening its length as well.

Marion Brady, who occasionally posts here, argues forcefully that the model of schooling we have is obsolete, derived from a false model (the work of Frederick Taylor), and ignores most of the insights we have develop about learning and about interactions, most especially things like general systems theory. I have become increasingly of the mind that our attempts at school reform resemble little more than doing the same stupidity only with greater energy. While I cannot explore this idea further in this post, I really wonder if we might not do our children and our society a great favor by ceasing all current efforts at school reform and taking a big step back. What if our schools didn’t exist? What if we were inventing from scratch how we were going to educate people in our society? What if we did not already have massive capital investment in buildings, large numbers of people on the payroll, and significant number of people whose livelihood at least indirectly depended upon the current structure of education. What would we design to meet the needs of our children and of our society?

What we have now is unhealthy. To fiddle with one part without looking at the overall impact because of interactions both within and without the school may turn out to be counterproductive, as we have found is true of most recent efforts at educational reform. If you doubt that last statement, there is increasingly clear evidence of a pattern of dropping SAT scores as all the various educational reforms - including the reform of the SAT itself - begin to kick in. And while I do not place great weight upon indicators such as SAT scores, because we tend to rely upon such indicators (albeit far too much) in our policy decisions, when they offer us a picture that is contrary to that which we predicted we have an obligation to step back and try to determine why.

I gave one example of an issue that may not be fully considered -- dropping the access to sugared drinks may lead to lack of energy in extended school days, even as we acknowledge that too easy access to such drinks begins to develop food patterns for life, patterns that are unhealthy. Well, stress and overwork are also unhealthy, and yet we do not seem to apply the same standard in examining all of the policies we impose upon our school children and the adults attempting to serve them.

So if it we think cutting back sugar is good, why not see if cutting back other things -- length of the day, amount of material, level of stress - might not also be good. Could it be that in schools less is better, especially when it comes to the health of our students? Keynes warned us in the long run we would all be dead. it will not matter how much information we cram into the minds of our students if in the process we kill their minds, their souls, even their lives.
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