Fat & Dumb: The sad state of U.S. youth and how to fix it

Preface: Why Everyone Should Care About This Problem

Those of you who have adult children, or no children, are probably about to tune out. Don’t. This matters for all of us. Every time you have terrible customer service; every time you get angry when someone doesn’t show the least bit common sense; every time someone else’s lack of education affects you. If you participate in the society of this country in any way at all then the education of it’s populace affects you.

Not having kids is not a pass to ignore these issues, because one day the kids you look down on and failed to help when you could, will be running the country you live in. Who do you want in charge when you’re 80 years old and relying on the medical, social, and governmental systems to see to your well-being? Do you want to rely on generations of kids who were consistently below average compared to everyone else in the world, or do you want the best of the best of the best on your team?

If you don’t care about growing old, bettering our society, seeing to the welfare of future generations, and seeing to your own welfare in the future, then please, stop reading. This is a waste of your time; the rest of us will take care of it and let you know how it goes.

If you do care, then lets get this party started!


Last week I gave you my top six reasons why kids need true physical education in their daily lives. Today, I’m going to share with you my vision of a school built not only around making physical education a priority for every child, but also a school that strives to help kids learn to be functional adults. Later, I’ll be focusing on high school age students (14-18 years old) since they are the closest to being tossed out into the world and expected to function, but to set the scene, let’s look at why this new school is necessary overall.

We’ll start with nationwide statistics on the physical state of the United States, and then we’ll look at the academic side. Finally, I’ll end with a theory that seeks to unify the solutions to these problems at the high school level.


Physical State of the U.S.A.

Obesity has at least doubled in every age group since 1970…

  • Ages 2-5 almost doubled from 5% to 8%
  • Ages 6-11 quadrupled from 4% to 17%
  • Ages 12-19 more than tripled from 6% to 20%
  • Ages 20+ more than doubled from 15% to 34%

Physical Activity levels have dropped across the board in that same time…

  • About 33% of kids (prepubescent) are physically active every day
  • About 20% of adults and adolescents meet daily activity recommendations
  • Only six U.S. states require physical education at every grade level (Illinois, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York & Vermont)
  • About 28% of Americans ages 6+ are physically inactive on a daily basis

And, of course, Nutrition is a big factor here too…

  • Since 1970, fast food availability has more than doubled and average intake per day per person has increase by 600 calories
  • About 40% of daily total calories for kids ages 2-18 come from added sugars and solid fats, with about half found in soda, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, grain desserts, pizza, and whole milk.
  • Even food safety has suffered, with 1 in 6 people experiencing illness from a preventable food-born illness. Of those people, 3000 will die each year from simple lack of education.
  • Only about 58% of Americans consume the recommended amount of fruits and veggies at least 4-5 days per week.

Summary:

  • As a nation, kids and adults are fatter, more sedentary, and eating more poorly than at any time in our history.
  • Obesity-related illness is costing the United States in excess of $190,000,000,000 per year. Yes, $190 billion dollars PER YEAR.
  • By 2018, costs are estimated to increase to $344 billion per year, or 21% of all annual U.S. health care costs.
  • All of this is preventable with better education and focus on healthy habits.
  • This problem will not solve itself.

Resources:

  1. http://www.fitness.gov/resource-center/facts-and-statistics/
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/physicalactivity/facts.htm
  3. http://www.ncsl.org/research/health/childhood-obesity-trends-state-rates.aspx

Academic State of the U.S.A.

Time & Money Spent on Education have remained fairly constant since 1970…

  • Adults 15 years or older completed an average of 12.1 years of school as of 1970, and an average of 12 years as of 2000. The U.S. was ranked #1 in 2000 for total years of schooling (this will matter soon)
  • Using a standardized measurement system, the nationwide average high school graduation rate in 2014 was about 81%
  • Drop-out rates have declined from 10.9 percent in 2000 to 6.8 percent in 2013 (yay!)
  • The U.S. spends, on average, 115,000 USD per student in grades K-12.

All that seems great, right?

Test Scores in the U.S. are at or below average as compared to 34 other nations of similar socioeconomic development…

  • As of 2012, we rank 27th in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 20th in science.
  • The top mathematics nation (Shanghai-China) shows the equivalent of two full years of additional education based on performance standards (which as of 2000 only has 6.4 average years of school being completed)
  • The U.S. spends twice as much on education as countries that rank similarly to us.
  • About 25% of U.S. students never reach the international baseline for performance in mathematics and the U.S. has a disproportionately small number of high performers in the subject.
  • In maths, we rank similarly to Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Sweden
  • In reading, we rank similarly to Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and Viet Nam.
  • In science, we rank similarly to Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Spain.

Our Strengths have become apparent…

  • Students perform best at tasks requiring short attention spans, a quick amount of reading, and purely factual problems such as reading data from a table.
  • Using direct formulas to do simple calculations is also one of our strong suits.
  • Handling data from a table/diagram and then using it to make a straight-forward calculation

But so have our Weaknesses

  • U.S. students can’t seem to use pi (π) very well.
  • The ability to understand the real-world application of mathematics is low, especially situations where the student has to build out a mathematical model of how the equations fit the scenario.
  • Students show low ability to reason using geometric or spatial skills, as well as the inability to take mathematical application towards real-world scenarios seriously.
  • Students tend to focus only on Basic or High-level math when presented with a real-world context, and fail to see overlap between the two.

Summary:

  • We spend more money than average, spend much more time in school than average, and yet perform at average or lower standards than 34 comparable countries.
  • Students in the U.S. are less able to think critically in their subjects than students internationally, even though American schools have started critical thinking tasks earlier in the educational process.
  • Students in the U.S. are less able to move between basic-level and high-level curriculum items fluidly, indicating a lack of integration in the different levels.
  • Most concerning: even with even more focus on academics over the last ten years, these factors have not improved!

Resources:

  1. http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
  2. http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Education/Average-years-of-schooling-of-adults
  3. https://www.oecd.org/unitedstates/PISA-2012-results-US.pdf
  4. http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/12/03/248329823/u-s-high-school-students-slide-in-math-reading-science
  5. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/02/02/u-s-students-improving-slowly-in-math-and-science-but-still-lagging-internationally/

A Unified Model of Physical and Academic Excellence

On the Surface: The Problem

The state of the United States youth is pretty apparent, and on average we’re becoming Fat and Dumb. Major government bodies that manage the data collection on our kids agree with this conclusion. Private organizations that collect data on this agree. We have the unique situation where both private and public sectors actually agree on something. The casual observer should find this interesting, and maybe even concerning, since how often does this really happen? The public sector is usually too conservative and the private sector too greedy; we see their goals as being too separate to ever be truly the same.

But not here. Not with education and physical fitness. Here, we see agreement. I belabor this point to illustrate the level of the problem we’re facing, and why we need new solutions for it.

What we’re doing isn’t working. The push for higher academics isn’t raising test levels past the limits we’ve hit. Telling people to “move more and eat better” all while cutting actual health/fitness education in schools isn’t working.

We’re getting fatter, and if we’re not getting dumber, we’re at least not getting smarter either.

Digging Deeper: The Cause

Since the 1970’s the only things we’re doing right are keeping kids in school in situations where they might otherwise drop-out and spending more money than the rest of the world on their education. First, these are amazingly good things! Second, they’re not doing much for the kids or the nation otherwise. Are we spending so much just to hit an average level in academics because we spend so much of that money keeping below average kids in school at all? Or are we successfully keeping kids in school from social factors that don’t cost much money, and thus the money is being wasted on academic programs that have no significant outcomes? In either case, we’re not serving the student population effectively, and it’s time to reallocate funds.

Life Skills

One major difference in current academics versus the 1970’s is the focus on health education, physical fitness, and general life skills. A great many fewer kids today have required coursework in these areas, leading to less health conscious behavior overall as well as a general lack of ability to care for themselves once they reach adulthood. For instance, how many graduating seniors would know how to do the following to any level of proficiency?

  • Cook a nutritious meal without a microwave
  • Manage their basic finances / do their own taxes
  • Complete basic mending on clothing
  • Change the oil in their own car
  • Write a simple letter or essay to communicate an effective point with good grammar/spelling

These are basic life skills that many, many “adults” now lack because we stopped teaching them effectively. In short, they don’t know how to #Adult. Since some of you might be wondering: yes, I can do all those things myself. I am rather good at tailoring, actually, and have owned a sewing machine for most of my adult life.

Academic Skills

We focus almost exclusively on drilling the STEM subjects into kids today. Homework load is massive, in-class instruction time is extensive, and everyone is held to the same standards of both performance and timing. Kids are expected to sit through hours of lecture, complete hours of homework daily, and all learn at the same rate.

Of course, it’s not actually working, so that’s a problem, right?

Non-STEM academic subjects like music, arts, & health are being reduced, while more physical daily class time is being cut entirely in some cases. There is no question that enrollment in these more “enriching” classes improves cognitive performance in kids across the board, so why are cutting them? Basically, because someone said they wanted to throw more money at STEM and that money had to come from somewhere. Some schools offer an option to take online PhysEd. Let that sink in for a moment, because it completely negates the entire purpose of the class.

Health Skills

Where the physical side of education is lacking, we also find the health-knowledge side following suit. Kids aren’t being taught what they need to know to manage a healthy diet, prepare their own food, see to the safety of what they eat, diagnose possible dietary problems they might have, or even figure out which foods are healthy! A large part of the obesity issues we’re seeing today are from lack of education around proper nutrition at even a basic level.

When you couple this with how much the system de-emphasizes daily movement and exercise, plus the culture of “instant gratification” we’ve been fostering with kids who are never allowed to lose at anything, you have the recipe for our current society: fat and dumb. We could also add, “and impatient” to the title.

The Solution?

Join me next week when this wall of text comea together into one solution for all these problems.