Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Decline of America's Schools Isn't Just Academic

The decline of American public education, documented by a plethora of objective tests for decades, is so well known it requires no documentation here. What I wish to address here goes beyond the academic failure. It is about the way school regulations now are regimenting all aspects of the children's lives, what they eat and drink—even their play during recess. Predictably, the results are less favorable for the children.

In his book Inside American Education, Thomas Sowell writes:
  • They have used our children as guinea pigs for experiments, targets for propaganda.
  • They have taken our money, betrayed our trust, failed our children.
  • They have proclaimed their dedication to freedom of ideas and the quest for truth, while turning educational institutions into bastions of dogma and the most intolerant institutions in American society.
Schools have become totalitarian compounds, where an autocratic administration arrogates to itself the power dictate whatever it thinks is best for the children, irrespective of the role and rights of the parents.

Remember the campaign to remove from schools vending machines dispensing soft drinks and snacks, a measure that was supposed to help combat childhood obesity? Who could be against that? Are you in favor of childhood obesity? Few people bothered to ask if the measure would be effective or if it was the schools' role to police what children put into their mouths.

Did you think the issue would stop with banning the vending machines? If so, you should have known better. Next was banning children from bringing soft drinks and snacks from home. And school cafeterias had to be prohibited from serving french fries, pizzas, and other items the children like and substituting foods with fewer calories and less salt and sugar.

Earlier this year a firestorm of protest arose when the Chicago Tribune published a story about a school that banned children from bringing lunches from home. Principal Elsa Carmona told the newspaper her intention is to protect students from their own unhealthful food choices. But Susan Rubin, a nutritionist and founder of the Better School Food program, told AOL News, "I get physically sick just looking at it, because it makes me sick that kids are eating this processed crap." The Chicago Tribune reported, “Many students throw away their entrees uneaten and say they would rather bring food from home.” Carmona said, "Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," but children get zero nutrition from food that is thrown away.

Parent Erica Martinez said, "Some of the kids don't like the food they give at our school for lunch or breakfast. So it would be a good idea if they could bring their lunch so they could at least eat something." A spokeswoman for Chicago Public Schools said the decision to prohibit packed lunches is left to the principals, and she was unable to say how many have schools such a policy.

The Chicago Tribune recounted: “Fernando Dominguez cut the figure of a young revolutionary leader during a recent lunch period at his elementary school. 'Who thinks the lunch is not good enough?' the seventh-grader shouted to his lunch mates in Spanish and English. Dozens of hands flew in the air and fellow students shouted along: 'We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch! We should bring our own lunch!'”

Los Angeles, Fairfax Country Virginia, Washington D.C. and many other locales have banned chocolate and strawberry-flavored milk in schools,claiming white milk is healthier. Chocolate milk has also been banned in Minneapolis even though the product sold to Minneapolis schools had less sugar than other versions and contained only 20 calories more than a carton of regular 1-percent-fat milk. Chocolate milk represented up to 60 percent of the district's lunchtime milk sales.

The ban on chocolate milk ban was intended to give children more benefit from milk, but it resulted in some children drinking no milk. Some mothers say their children won't drink white milk. Worse, school is the only place many kids drink milk at all. The Washington Post reports that removing flavored milk from schools reduces children's milk consumption by 37 percent. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups support chocolate milk in schools because of studies showing that flavored-milk drinkers consume more milk than do youths who drink white milk only.

Dairy foods are a major source of saturated fat in the diet, which has been associated with heart disease. But research at Uppsala University in Sweden suggests eating dairy foods could benefit your heart by lowering blood pressure or reducing cholesterol levels, according to Dr. Eva Warsesjo, et. al., in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Warensjo and her team measured blood levels of two biomarkers of milk fat in 444 heart attack patients and 556 healthy controls. The substances, pentadecanoic acid and heptadecanoic acid, indicate how much dairy fat a person has been eating. The people with the highest levels of milk fat biomarkers were actually at lower risk of heart attack. For women, the risk was reduced by 26 percent, while for men risk was 9 percent lower.

There may also be other benefits from chocolate milk. For example, the Minneapolis Tribune reports, “Runners, in particular, seek it after distance events because it provides protein and carbohydrate recovery for tired muscles.”

Why not allow for individual choice? Why does the school have to be so intolerant about chocolate milk? Because the school wants a collective decision, a one-size-fits-all policy that prevents individual choice. Obviously, some children are worse off because of the policy, because they won't drink white milk and overall milk use declines 37 percent. But that is irrelevant to a school administration that assumes the right to sacrifice the interests of a minority for the alleged overall benefit of the group. That issue doesn't come up where individual choice is allowed.

And what is the effect on the children? Are they “learning” from the banning of chocolate milk that their own choices are not to be trusted, that only an outside authority can determine what is good for them? Or that their own interests must be sacrificed for the alleged good of others?

I learned of another illustrative example of a school's collectivist premise from a single mom living in a Minneapolis suburb. She has a 10-year old daughter who, along with her classmates, was told by the teacher that henceforth there would be a new policy at recess. The children would be allowed to play with whomever they chose for the first five minutes of recess. Then a whistle would be blown, and the children would have to stop playing with those kids and play with some others. Five minutes later a whistle would sound and, again, they would have to stop playing and pick new playmates. It was explained that this would be better for the overall group because it would provide “equal opportunity” for kids to play with others. The kids, however, wanted to make their own choices, not do what the teacher thought was best for the group. So they went on strike. When recess came, they all sat down on the playground and refused to play. When the whistle sounded, they ignored it and just sat there. The administration apparently hoped things would be different the next day, but the kids again sat down on the playground during recess. Only this time they brought signs. These had messages such as “No play your way” and “We play our way.”

On the third day, when the administrators saw the kids were prepared to continue their sit-down strike, they announced the school policy wasn't such a good idea after all and would be discontinued.

One victory for the kids! Hooray! They were happier with their own choices.  And if children could choose the milk they preferred, they would be not only happier but healthier.

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