opinion

OPINION: American K-12 education is having a health crisis



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A child rests his head on his arm while doing homework. Tribune News Service

The country's K-12 education system is riddled with problems. Policy researchers say America’s schools are increasingly underfunded and plagued with a lack of equal opportunity across districts.

Researchers for the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation ranked the U.S. sixth in the world in 1990 in terms of expected human capital, an economic metric incorporating education and health data. However, the U.S. dropped to rank 27 in 2016 due to “minimal progress” on educational attainment and lackluster education quality. 

A major part of the problem is how our K-12 education system treats children in terms of physical and mental health. This is a health crisis, and school boards and school administrations need to take action now.

Schools should ensure all students can afford to eat breakfast and lunch, start school later in the morning and substantially reduce the crippling amount of homework assigned to students.

Student stress levels rival those of adults according to the American Psychological Association. Moreover, nearly two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

The easiest change to make would be to start school later in the morning. American schools are notorious for starting too early. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2014 that all schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students to get the appropriate amount of sleep for their age. However, 93% of high schools and 83% of middle schools started before 8:30 a.m., according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study the same year.

Monroe County schools open at 9 a.m. for kindergarten through 6th grade and 8 a.m. for grades 7 through 12. That’s better than many schools that begin as early as 7 a.m., but Monroe County Community School Corporation should consider a later start time for grades 7 through 12. 

MCCSC should follow Seattle’s example, where delaying high school start times from 7:50 a.m. to 8:45 a.m. in 2016 led to more sleep and better performance, according to researchers.

Start times are a problem in higher education, too. College students have been shown to do remarkably better in classes later in the day. For optimal student performance, college courses would ideally begin around 10 or 11 a.m. and extend later into the evening, according to study from the University of Nevada at Reno. 

At IU, many classes begin before 10 a.m., some of which are required. Courses required for a degree should not be offered before 10 a.m., or at least should be made available at later times.

For the more than 11 million U.S. children living in food-insecure homes, however, sleep deprivation is only one problem affecting their performance. 

As New York University professor Sean Patrick Corcoran told the Atlantic, “Students who eat regular, healthy meals are less likely to be tired, are more attentive in class, and retain more information.” Free and reduced-price school lunches are linked to lower rates of food insecurity, obesity and poor health.

We must expand the National School Lunch Program to provide free, healthy breakfasts and lunches to all children in school because no child should go hungry. Several cities have also achieved near-universal free school lunches using federal reimbursements from the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision at no additional cost. 

MCCSC received funding from the CEP to expand its free lunch program to all students at five schools in low-income areas for the 2019-2020 school year. Monroe County should follow New York's example by offering free lunches to all public school students. New York’s program, started in 2017, has been associated with increased academic performance for both poor and non-poor students.

Another factor contributing to the litany of stressors on American children's shoulders is the seemingly insurmountable amount of homework assigned. 

For grades K-6, homework has shown to be loosely correlated with achievement and largely ineffective, according to a 2006 Duke Study. For high school students, homework can be an effective learning tool but only in moderation.

With the amount of stress students are currently under, it is time for school administrations to reassess the necessity of homework and mandate a cap on how much can be assigned. 

Students are already busy enough at school. There’s no sense in requiring several hours of homework each night.

School administrations are not doing enough to encourage student success. Monroe County schools in particular should look into a later start time for grades 7-12 and a universal county-wide school lunch program. It is imperative that school administrations across the country redouble their efforts to help students succeed.

Jonah Hyatt (he/him) is a junior studying political science and philosophy. He is the treasurer of the Palestine Solidarity Committee at IU.

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