One thing Bill Gates could do that would actually help kids in school

t Umejima Elementary School. Ko Sasaki / For The Washington Post
( Ko Sasaki / For The Washington Post)

Bill Gates has spent billions of dollars on education reform efforts, such as evaluating teachers with student standardized test scores and the Common Core State Standards, with not much to show for it. Here’s an idea for how he could spend money in a way that would actually help kids do better in school. This was written by Debby Mayer, founder of  Great Schools for America, an organization that advocates for quality public schools free from corporate control. A version of this appeared on the website Great Schools for America.

 

By Debby Mayer

For years Bill Gates and other billionaire philanthropists, along with government officials, have been “reforming” our public schools. During this period, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent creating charter and virtual schools; de-professionalizing teaching; pushing testing policies that have led to the reduction or elimination of libraries and art, music and physical education in many schools; promoting larger class sizes; and more. Have these interventions produced higher scores on competitive tests and improved the education experience of students?  No.

Here’s a suggestion for Bill and other philanthropists who want to reform our public schools: FEED THE CHILDREN. Concentrating on this one thing would cause test scores to soar.

On January 30, 2014, America learned that, “Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.”

Apparently this is not the first time children at that school have been denied food because as school officials pointed out, “The children were given milk and fruit instead of a full lunch — the meal that the school says it gives any child who isn’t able to pay.”

This isn’t the first time a child has been denied food by school officials. Just a few months earlier, according to KTRK, the same Dickensian behavior was witnessed in Dickinson (irony noted), Texas, “A 12-year-old Dickinson student’s breakfast was tossed in the trash, because his account was short by just 30 cents.” He didn’t ask for more; he just asked for some.  Even though children in America aren’t forced to work off their debts in poorhouses as English children were centuries ago, many students come from poor houses where scrounging up as little as 30 cents for a meal is often a struggle. As families are faced with food stamps cuts, they must spend more of their income for food at home.

Both schools defended their actions by hiding behind policy. One might wonder how many school districts have such policies and how many children across the nation go hungry each day because they can’t afford to pay for food at school. In this age of education reform, when a student’s fate rests on how high he or she scores on a standardized test, shouldn’t we insist that all students be fed and fed well?

Suppose that instead of denying students food, schools provided them with nutritious and delicious meals. Wouldn’t that make a difference in student achievement? Yes.

The ideas of Donella Meadows, known for Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, are overlooked in today’s education reform climate. Education reformers prefer to replace the whole system with one of their own liking, one they can ultimately own. Reformers, who are not educators themselves, are prone to believe that scholarship is irrelevant to the education profession. Their process is to ignore tried and true strategies that work, and instead to propose a hodgepodge of punitive initiatives using students, teachers, and even entire schools as guinea pigs while they determine which ideas are most profitable for them.

If sustained high student achievement is in fact the goal of true education reform, feeding children nutritious meals at school might be considered a small shift that could produce big changes. According to Meadows:

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

Leverage points and interventions are ignored by reformers who insist, without a shred of credible evidence, that teacher quality as measured by student standardized test scores is the best valid indicator of learning at school. The agenda and policy set by wealthy non-educators and government officials is so narrowly focused on the teacher/test correlation that it eliminates consideration of all other small interventions that might produce huge positive results, the nutrition – hunger/achievement correlation for example.

Fortunately for us, a study measuring the effects of a nutritious diet on student achievement has already been conducted. Before holding-teachers-accountable-for-every-single-ailment-of-our-education-system became fashionable, school districts experimented (in the true sense of the word) to find data to support the hypothesis that poverty and achievement are related. It’s hard to believe that just 30-some short years ago we cared enough about kids to try a jaw-droppingly innovative experiment like this one. Even though it was conducted some three decades ago, the results are every bit as valid today as they were then.

According to the New York Times, the experiment was initiated as a result of a lawsuit filed in 1978:

A settlement has been been reached in a three-year-old class action suit brought by Consumers Union in an effort to force the City of New York to improve the nutritional quality of its school lunch program. In light of the Reagan Administration’s recent proposals to lower the requirements for the national school lunch program and the improvements already made in the city’s program, however, the settlement may be moot.

The suit, based on a 1978 audit conducted by the General Accounting Office, found that 40 percent of the lunches served did not provide adequate amounts of food or the variety required by law.

Elizabeth Cagan, director of the Board of Education’s Office of School Food Service had already joined together with researcher Dr. Stephen Schoenthaler on The Impact of a Low Food Additive and Sucrose Diet on Academic Performance in 803 New York City Public Schools to determined the effects of a healthy diet on student achievement.

In the spring of 1979, New York City’s public schools ranked in the 39th percentile on standardized California Achievement Test scores given nationwide. That means that 61 percent of the nation’s public schools scored higher. They had been in the lower half of the country for years. However, for a few years in the 1980s, these same 803 schools ranked in the upper half of the nation’s schools. They went from 11% below the national average to 5% above it. What happened?

The introduction of policy based on the Feingold diet which lowered sucrose, synthetic food color/flavors, and two preservatives (BHA and BHT) over four years in 803 public schools was followed by a 15.7% increase in mean academic percentile ranking above the rest of the nation’s schools who used the same standardized tests. Prior to the 15.7% gain, the standard deviation of the annual change in nation percentile rating had been less than 1%.

All schools and all children showed improvement, but not all children made a 16% improvement. Rather, the lowest achievers improved the most. That bears repeating: the lowest achievers improved more than the mean average of 16%. The children who had not been helped by any other intervention improved the most. Incredible, but true! Literally a recipe for success! (Click here for a clearer image of the graph below.)

 

gates graph

So, what happened next? Why did the high test scores last for only four years? The reforms instituted by Cagan were not preserved. Soon the improvements made in the NYC lunch menu were altered to again include foods with unhealthy sweeteners, flavors, preservatives, food dyes, and fats. Children stopped eating or ate the cheap, poor quality food. Test scores dropped. Cagan’s tenure at NCY Food Services is a testament to the difference one person can make in the lives of millions. That her legacy was not preserved is a travesty for the children of New York City.

So, Bill Gates, and you, too Arne Duncan, I challenge you to a noble experiment. Feed the children. No more harmful sugar additives, flavors, food dyes, preservatives, or fats. None of that genetically modified stuff, either. Feed the children well, and they will achieve more, much more. This must be a nationwide systemic intervention, not a competition where some kids get good food and some kids don’t.  This isn’t The Hunger Games, after all, and besides, we can afford it. Feed all the children well. Then, install safeguards to keep  this fine intervention in place for years to come. Your goal of improving education will be a successful and sustainable one!

Don’t know how to get started? The Feingold Association is an all-volunteer organization that offers nutrition education about healthy eating. If you watch nothing else, view the slide show, LET’S DO LUNCH! It seems to have been prepared especially with you in mind. Watch the whole thing — it’s long but worth it. Then, view the videos below. I’m sure you can take it from there.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | February 4