Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Can Schools Solve Societal Problems?

obriena's picture

Earlier today a press release for a study in the January 2012 issue of Sociology of Education caught my eye: Study Suggests Junk Food in Schools Doesn’t Cause Weight Gain Among Children.

According to the press release (I’m not a subscriber of the journal, so I didn’t have access to the full text of the study), “While the percentage of obese children in the United States tripled between the early 1970s and the late 2000s, a new study suggests that—at least for middle school students—weight gain has nothing to do with the candy, soda, chips, and other junk food they can purchase at school.”

To me, this makes a lot of sense. As one of the study’s authors, Pennsylvania State University Professor Jennifer Van Hook, points out, “Schools only represent a small portion of children’s food environment.”

But something in the release disturbed me: Van Hook’s comments that, in light of the focus in the media on the money that schools make from selling junk food and on schools’ ability to reduce childhood obesity, “We were really surprised by [these results] and, in fact, we held back from publishing our study for roughly two years because we kept looking for a connection that just wasn’t there.”

No one can deny that childhood obesity is an increasing problem in our society. And of course, there are things that schools can do to help with the obesity epidemic. They can teach students to make healthy food choices. They can decrease the number of unhealthy food options available to students during their time in school. They can prioritize physical activity throughout the day.

But that an academic would express surprise that there isn’t a correlation between weight gain and availability of junk food at school suggests to me that there is something wrong with the education conversation in this nation.

Schools very clearly play a key role in our society. But too often, we blame them for society’s ills – and then we place the weight of fixing those ills upon them.

Given that children are inundated with advertisements for unhealthy foods on television and radio, that they may live in a community where the only “grocery” store is a 7-Eleven, and that they may not be allowed outside to play for fear of what trouble they will find (or will find them), is it a wonder that whether or not junk food is available at their school has little bearing on their weight? Yet much of the rhetoric recently has suggested that if only schools were to take a few small steps – serve healthier food and offer more P.E. – the childhood obesity problem would be solved. It is just not realistic. While schools can and should play a role, they cannot do it alone.

I believe that the same could be argued around any societal issue. Drug use. Teen pregnancy. And poverty.

Some politicians seem to believe that providing all students access to a rigorous academic program delivered by a quality teacher will eliminate poverty in our society. Again, that is just not realistic. It ignores the asthma that afflicts low-income populations more than middle- and upper- income populations, causing children to miss school. It ignores that some 14-year-olds must work to contribute to their family income and as a result lack the time and energy to do homework. It ignores the time that a child whose father is killed by gang violence or whose mother vanishes for days on end spends focusing on issues that are not school-related.

Schools can certainly play a role in both helping individual children overcome the challenges of poverty and helping society eliminate it, just as they can play a role in stemming the childhood obesity epidemic, or in addressing whatever problem society is facing at any given time. But they cannot do it alone. And whatever the issue, we have to stop implying that they can.

Image by Evan-Amos