Dr. Patricia Anderson, Dartmouth College – School Budgets and Childhood Obesity

Jul 12, 2012

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Patricia Anderson of Dartmouth College reveals how efforts to improve academic performance have contributed to the obesity epidemic.

Patty Anderson is a professor of economics at Dartmouth College where her most recent research is focused on the economic factors behind the growing obesity problem in the United States. She is also affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Co-editor of the Journal of Human Resources. She earned her Ph.D. at Princeton University.

About Dr. Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson, Dartmouth College – School Budgets and Childhood Obesity

U.S. school children tend to rank in the middle of the pack in global education rankings, even though No Child Left Behind legislation was meant to increase student achievement.  One area where U.S. students do lead the world, though, is in obesity. More than one-third of American children are classified as overweight.  Recent research indicates that school policies, especially those enacted in response to No Child Left Behind, may actually be contributing to obesity.  What’s the connection?

Under pressure to increase test scores in math and reading, 71% of schools report reallocating time away from other subjects, including calorie-burning activities such as recess and PE.  To motivate students to work hard and do well on the exams, rewards are given, sometimes in the form of a party with calorie-laden snacks, or coupons for fast-food restaurants.  Schools may also shift money to test-prep activities in hopes of raising scores enough to achieve Adequate Yearly Progress goals under No Child Left Behind.  This leaves other school programs under-funded. So if the band needs new uniforms or the chess club wants to travel to a tournament, how do they raise money? Often by selling candy or holding bake sales. Or if the school prefers a more stable flow of income, many will sign contracts with soda and vending machine companies. This can bring in tens of thousands of dollars annually.

Research with my co-authors Kristin Butcher and Diane Schanzenbach indicates that schools coming close to meeting Adequate Yearly Progress goals, and thus likely feeling the most pressure under No Child Left Behind, do in fact have a slightly more overweight student body.  The impact is under one percentage point, but is statistically significant.  Thus, in our zeal for improving math and reading scores, we may be losing sight of an important goal: our children’s good health.