There’s a section in the new Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll out this week that hasn’t gotten much attention: what parents think about schools and student health. (You can read my overview of the full poll, which focuses heavily on questions about teacher quality and preparation, here.)
Interestingly, the percentage of parents who said they “strongly agreed” their child’s school “does things to help him or her be healthier” has declined since 2012, to 20 percent from 33 percent, according to the new poll.
While keeping in mind that correlation is not causation, the steepness of that dip took me by surprise. The role of schools in keeping kids healthy has been in an intense spotlight for the past four years, both with the push to improve federal school nutrition requirements and the intensity of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.
While the quality of classroom instruction may be the single biggest predictor a student’s success, that doesn’t mean their overall learning environment isn’t a significant contributing factor. U.S. schools are continually bombarded with demands for improvement and required to implement new initiatives, programs, and educational approaches aimed at boosting achievement.
At the same time, schools have become the de facto provider of nutritional services for many children and teens—and, more and more commonly, basic health care like annual exams and vaccinations. And to a degree that makes perfect sense: How much can we expect teachers to accomplish in the classroom if kids come to class hungry, or with a toothache, or in need of glasses?
But where do we draw the line? After cutting back on fat, sugar and salt in school lunches, how much more of the responsibility for student health should rest on the shoulders of educators?
It turns out quite a bit of already does.
Some school districts have started tracking students’ body-mass index (weight in relationship to height) and sending health “report cards” home to parents, a practice the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says needs to be carefully managed. Many campuses have added early morning activity clubs to make up for missing gym classes, and parents are encouraged to take part, as well.
Some health advocates want an even more formalized curriculum. Last year the American Medical Association recommended that students in grades 1-12 be taught about the dangers of obesity and suggested its members could volunteer to help implement such educational programs in public schools.
Here are the follow-up questions I’d like PDK/Gallup to ask the next time around:
How many of these parents have seen cuts to children’s recess, gym classes and extracurricular sports?
How many of those cuts were the result of budget shortfalls or the demand to provide more time for classroom instruction and test preparation?
What changes, if any, have parents made in the past year to the school lunches they’re packing at home, or the amount of scheduled physical activity they’re getting as a family?
If those positive behaviors are being reinforced at home, I imagine the health lessons taught in school would carry–yes, I’ll say it–a lot more weight.