Whether or not you agree with Richard Simmons, it's promising when anti-obesity initiatives work. That appears to be the case in Philadelphia, where the results from a comprehensive healthy-eating campaign showed that "The number of kids who got fat during the two-year experiment was half the number of kids who got fat in schools that didn't make those efforts."

What was the secret? Enter libertarian paternalism:

"We found when you give children healthy choices, they pick them," said Grace McGinley, school nurse at Francis Hopkinson School, one of the test schools.

Call it a nudge, a push, a shove, whatever???schools are supposed to be in loco parentis, so I say be a nudging nanny and junk the junk food for good.

Liam Julian

In The Independent, Steve Richards's column is titled: "If you want to understand politics, just examine the explosive education debate."

Liam Julian

Regarding Mike's post, isn't it odd that a school embraces healthy food alternatives only after a two-year research study? It reminds one of the humorous dig at think tanks: that they study reality to see if it conforms to theory. In Philadelphia's schools, it seems, common sense has truly been vindicated. It is, in fact, correct that replacing soda and potato chips with healthful alternatives will make students healthier!

What happens, though, when this study is replicated in Memphis or Honolulu or Boise and yields no significant results? More studies, no doubt.

Here arises a problem with education reform overall: Common sense often dies at the hands of reports and statistics that obscure or even contradict it. (This occurs in lots of other fields, too. Michael Pollan, for example, makes a persuasive case that America's national eating disorder is, in large part, a product of lousy scientific studies.) It's counterproductive, of course, to toss out the baby with the bathwater and eschew all studies in favor of tradition, but one wonders just how enthralled by statisticians ed reformers wish to be.

Liam Julian

Certainly this isn't the country's most pressing issue, but it's still a big problem.

Liam Julian

The latest National Review contains this article (subscription required) about the spanking debate (whether or not to spank one's children). It's an odd piece that skips not lightly from presenting the controversy's history, to illustrating the problems with a spanking ban, to hypothesizing that less spanking has spawned the prevalence of pharmaceutical methods of youth discipline, to weirdly comparing the "choice" to spank to the "choice" to have an abortion.

Nonetheless, out of the convolutions can be plucked several useful bits. First, that the evidence for and against spanking is inconclusive, and second, that the practice works for some parents and doesn't work for others.

It seems safe to apply these to the k-12 setting and also make an argument for educational choice, which is that parents ought to have the choice to enroll their children in a school that exercises reasonable forms of physical discipline if parents so choose. To say that the watered down discipline at most public schools results from the fact that such schools enroll students whose parents subscribe to radically different notions of appropriate punishment is not to be wrong.

Liam Julian

An argument for teaching the core curriculum.

In his "Department of Human Behavior" column in today's Washington Post, Shankar Vedantam considers Nudge, a new book by University of Chicago professors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. In it, they argue for "libertarian paternalism." Says Sunstein:

We agree with people who want to allow the market to flourish, so we are libertarians in that sense. On the other hand, we don't believe you can just have markets and then declare victory. It is legitimate to be paternalistic in terms of steering people in directions that will increase the likelihood they will do well.

The authors are particularly enamored with "default" policies, such as having companies enroll new employees in retirement savings programs unless they opt out. Vedantam explains:

When new employees are told that retirement accounts will be started for them unless they object, for example, most sign up cheerfully. When told that the accounts will not be started unless they opt in, most employees do not sign up because not having the account is then the default choice.

Defaults work in education, too. One of the primary goals of the American Diploma Project, for instance, is getting states to adopt a common, rigorous curriculum as the default for high school students. If they'd rather take a "general" or "vocation" track, rather than this college-prep route, students have to proactively opt out. It appears to be an effective way to encourage more kids to take tougher courses.

And you might also argue...

Liam Julian

Mike was right, it seems. I open my Sunday New York Times and, over coffee and smoked salmon, am accused of being not only racist, but sexist, too!

Kristof suggests that "getting past race" or "getting past gender" is nearly impossible (his penultimate paragraph allows a smidgen of hope). Of course, his article applies this thinking to the presidential contest, but if Kristof is right, we should be far more concerned about how our inherent racist, sexist ways will affect our daily interactions with coworkers, spouses, and family than how it will affect our votes.

Thankfully, he's not right. That people tend to subconsciously generalize and form snap impressions is nothing new. But neither is it new that people use reason and analysis to get past intrinsic, knee-jerk reactions. We demand such from mature adults. In k-12 schools, for example, what good is it to suppose that teachers may unknowingly expect less of black students? Teachers???regardless of their snap impressions, which really are their own business???should behave like mature adults and not let their impulses guide their actions.

I cannot understand why Kristof, whose columns are only occasionally perceptive but rarely thoroughly boneheaded, wrote this piece. Why this fascination with race and gender? He could've easily written a similar article about how we are all, say, naturally snobs (Is "attractivists" a word? If not, it will be.) because babies respond more vigorously to prettier people. Any other...

Liam Julian

This is also precisely why I've been avoiding the gym.

Seriously, though, this part of the article is interesting:

It comes as official figures show that pupils in all-girls' schools play significantly less sport than in mixed or boys' schools. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said that pupils at just 65 per cent of girls' schools did at least two hours of PE or sport a week???the official Government target???compared to 86 per cent nationally.

I would have supposed that young ladies enrolled in all-girls' schools would get more physical activity than their fairer-sex counterparts in gender-integrated environments. One of the reasons commonly provided in support of single-sex education is that because females won't be concerned about the opinions of masculine classmates, they will be more comfortable answering questions in class, for example, and playing field hockey. (Boys in single-sex schools, where are found no females in need of impressing, will, it is supposed, be less likely to act like asses. Highly dubious.) Perhaps our assumptions about single-sex education simply require more scrutiny.

Liam Julian

I hope everyone at Fordham will survive our blog's debut.