Why does even the easy stuff seem so hard?

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Over the last week or two a couple of (education) news items caught my eye: The first was an article (“Schools find active kids make smarter students”) that ran in the Star Tribune on August 23. Meadowview Elementary School in Farmington, Minnesota was featured for its effort to increase the amount of physical activity its students experience during the school day. According to officials there, this emphasis on exercise has paid off in improved academic achievement. The folks in Farmington modeled their program after one in place at Naperville Central High near Chicago, where students ride exercise bikes while reading, and practice yoga. That school was ranked first in the world in science and sixth in math in 1999, a few years after initiating the program. The not-so-subtle implication is that physical exercise made the difference. Yes, exercise is good for us! Who knew? (I just hope that we don’t find out that they fired all the teachers in 1998.)

Now, just a day or two ago I saw a story on WCCO Television. You know, one of those cute stories about some kids who wrote a letter to the editor? They complained about how difficult it is to finish, let alone enjoy, a school lunch in the ridiculously brief time allowed. There was Superintendent Johnson (Minneapolis Public Schools) eating with the girls, acknowledging the problem, and suggesting that she would look into a solution. Really? We all know this has been a problem for a very long time. How hard can it be to fix?

Good grief. Everyone knows that physical education in our nation’s schools looks pretty much the way it did throughout the 20th Century. (Actually, as I recall, those of us who were educated way back then were treated to many more hours of phy-ed than our youngsters are today.) Life is much more sedentary now, and our kids are growing obese. It is heartening to hear about programs like those in Naperville, Illinois and Farmington, Minnesota, but why, oh why, are they so slow in coming? School lunch? Hello? How long have we discussed and debated the quality of school food and the uncivil atmosphere of the typical school cafeteria? Is there something I’m missing here?

Imagine a school system where all students came to school every day, on time, with adequate supplies, and completed homework. Imagine a daily phy-ed experience that included yoga, hip-hop aerobic dance, step classes, and exercise bikes. Imagine a leisurely lunch period featuring high quality food. Imagine high school students starting their day at 8:30 instead of 7:30. (Remember that initiative? It is known that adolescents’ sleep cycles don’t coincide with school schedules. A lot of noise was made a few years ago here in the Twin Cities regarding this problem, but, alas, the last time I checked, all of Saint Paul’s public high schools still start at 7:30.) Again, why is this so impossible? 

The tragedy here is that these changes are cheap. They are doable now. They don’t involve major restructuring of teacher training institutions or painful, demoralizing debates about teacher quality or tenure. If we have the time to beat teachers over the head, why don’t administrators have the time to plan and implement sensible changes that, by all accounts, would result in higher test scores without firing anyone? Maybe more of our school district officials should make some phone calls to Naperville, and our students should keep pressuring administrators by writing editorials; neither action costs much at all.