Sunday, February 26, 2012

American obesity and the public schools - one anecdote

We have three children in the St Paul MN public school system. It's an urban public school system, but statistically above average.

We don't have that many complaints really. We've had some very good teacher-child combinations and some mediocre ones. Our children's ethnicity, talents, and temperaments cover a wide range; a teacher who does well with one child may do less well with another. Some classrooms are easier to handle, some harder. Sometimes the principal is doing well, sometimes they're looking for another job. Improving quality in education is a lot like improving quality in healthcare -- it's a culture-building process that requires years of patient focus and stable funding. Humans are bad at that sort of thing.

We don't have that many complaints -- but we do have an observation about schools and exercise. As we've all heard ad nauseum, Americans are obese behemoths that will soon sink the continent [1]. Maybe that's what did in Atlantis.

So, since American schools are tasked with everything, one might imagine they'd do things to encourage athletic activity. And our schools do -- in the elementary schools.

After elementary school though, things change. There are only so many fields and rinks and coaches -- and "elite" [2] sports consume them all. American high school sports resemble American society -- the elites do well, the masses not so well. There are no equivalents of the 'fun' or 'club' sports found in most American colleges. Given available budgets and facilities, supporting recreational non-elite exercise would require defunding competitive teams. Think 'Title IX' for the non-athlete.

Defunding competitive sports would not go over well. So, in normal times, this wouldn't be a consideration. After all, America fails miserably at the far more fundamental task of providing textbooks and teachers to all public schools [3].

These are not normal times, however. Obesity really is a serious public health problem, and, for better and for worse, public schools get the assignment -- along with zero-increment financing. Are there any examples of public schools that do this well?

[1] In reality, recent data suggests we're reaching some kind of obesity maximum. Since we're driving less every year obesity might even decrease.
[2] Teams and activities that are competitive at the inter-school level. 
[3] One of America's great failings is that schools are largely funded through local taxation. It's a recipe for lifelong suffering for a large number of Americans, and a colossal waste of national talent.

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