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The Mediterranean Diet and school reform

( (Emilio Morenatti/AP ) (By Emilio Morenatti/AP)

What does the Mediterranean Diet tell us about school reform? Martin Blank tells us in the following post. Blank is president of the Institute for Educational Leadership and director of the Coalition for Community Schools, an alliance of organizations in education K-16, youth development, community planning and development, family support, health and human services, government and philanthropy as well as national, state and local community school networks. The coalition envisions a future in which schools are centers of thriving communities where everyone belongs, works together, and succeeds.

By Martin Blank

There’s been lots of talk lately about the Mediterranean diet and its ability to reduce the risk of death by heart attacks, strokes and heart disease by 30%. The diet is rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, as well as wine, if you enjoy it.

Gina Kolata wrote in The New York Times that researchers do not necessarily know which ingredients of the diet are the most important. “The diet is sort of a black box,” wrote Kolata. “It is based on what people in Mediterranean countries used to eat, and the study adopted the diet as a whole to establish whether that combination of foods protected against heart disease.”

So what does this have to do with schools?  Well, reformers have been sifting through the education black box for years, to find the magic ingredient that will help young people succeed.  And the availability of more and more data drives some deeper into that search.  But the Mediterranean diet research contradicts our quest for a silver bullet, and suggests a different way of thinking about educating students.

We have been focusing primarily on in-school factors such as high-quality teaching and effective principals, or improved standards and assessments.  There too have our efforts coming up short with a narrower curriculum and educators who are too disconnected from the lives of their students and realities of the communities where they live.  But we must think more broadly.

Our society needs to give equal attention to the many factors beyond school that make their way into the classroom, and influence student learning and development.  So what might we find in the black box besides in-school factors?

Health is one.  There is ample research that argues  that there is a link between children’s health and school success.  In his research Charles Basch has concluded that elements like asthma, vision, physical activity, obesity and a healthy breakfast, all matter. We also know that chronic absence matters –across the country; every year, one in 10 kindergarteners and 1st grade students miss a month of school with excused and unexcused absences, often related to health and family stresses.

Solutions to hunger are in the black box too. Data on food insecurity shows that 17 million children experience some degree of hunger. If hungry students make it to school, they show a lack of energy, often can’t participate in class and don’t complete homework.  Educators and many community agency partners working in these schools are responding by sending children home with food in the same backpacks that carry their homework.  And they worry about what children will eat during longer vacations as well as in the summer.

And what about opportunities for children to express themselves and find and explore their untapped talents?  Where do ballet and music lessons, summer camps, travel and other enriching experiences fit into the black box?   All parents know the importance of these opportunities, but resources do matter.   When upper income families are able to spend 7 times what low-income families can, we know there is a huge opportunity gap.

The Educational Testing Service also captured many of the contextual factors affecting student success in Parsing the Achievement Gap analyses.   These include parental participation, hunger and nutrition, whether parents are reading to their young children and the impact of summer learning loss.   And the fact that 22% of America’s children live in poverty underlies many of these factors.

We do not lack for research that tells us that there are many “interactive” ingredients in the black box of educating our children however.  In All Together Now: Sharing Responsibility for the Whole Child written for ASCD in 2006, Amy Berg and I found this:

Nearly a century of research has come to one conclusion: children develop along multiple interconnected domains (social, emotional, physical, cognitive, civic, and moral) and when one developmental domain is ignored other domains suffer.  We know that the development of all of these interconnected domains is fostered in active safe environments, at home in school and in the community, that provide varied and rich social experiences, offer educational opportunities to build on children’s learning styles and support the basic needs of children and their families including health nutrition and economic and social well-being.


Does every student need everything in this bigger black box to succeed?  Since each child is different perhaps not. But, research on the Mediterranean diet and child development tell us that we are unlikely to be able to determine the single ingredient that will matter to each child.

This argues that is our shared responsibility to do as much as we can for all children.  We must band together — educators, elected officials, business leaders of the many other organizations, public and private, with a stake in our young people’s success. A growing number of local leaders, in places as diverse as Cincinnati, Oakland, the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, Tulsa and South King County Washington, are doing just this as they work across boundaries in this way to establish community schools

The conversations that these leaders are having locally must permeate our national education debate.  We must work together to fill our children’s plates with the most robust set of opportunities to thrive that our nation can muster.  That would be a revolution that reflects both research and a big old-fashioned dollop of American common sense.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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