F for Fat


How fat are students in Pennsylvania's Southern Tioga School District? They so fat that, according to The New York Times, "60 percent of eighth graders in the district scored in the 85th percentile or higher in 2003-4; more than a quarter had scores in the 95th percentile or higher, meaning they were officially overweight." Those numbers are somewhat less impressive when you realize that "the percentiles are based on pre-1980 measurements because the current population of children is too heavy to use as a reference." Maybe every kid's weight is above average now.

Leaving aside the controversy over how much we should worry about weight per se, as opposed to the poor diet and sedentary lifestyle associated with it, the article illustrates how public schools, many of which are doing a pretty crappy job of educating children, are now taking on the mission of slimming them down as well. In addition to fiddling with vending machine and cafeteria offerings, an increasing number of schools are sending kids home with "obesity report cards" that include their body mass indexes and (in Pennsylvania, at least) a comparison with juvenile BMIs of the '70s. Aside from promoting anger among parents, self-consciousness among chubby kids, and anxiety even among thin ones (the story opens with a slender-looking 6-year-old girl who is afraid her teacher will be mad at her if she eats too much), what do these reports accomplish? No one is really sure. "Entire states are adopting a policy that has not been tested," one expert tells the Times, saying there has been "no solid research."

Even if there were evidence that adding BMIs to report cards led to weight loss, is this an appropriate function for schools, especially government-run schools? Is it reasonable to hold them responsible for what kids eat and how much energy they expend? Given the invasive implications, the idea should be at least as controversial as creationism and sex education.