Education Policy & Practice

Archive for November 20th, 2009

Lincoln University, a historically black institution in Pennsylvania, will require students who are deemed “too heavy” to pass a physical fitness course to graduate, according to an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  In an admirable effort to keep students healthy, Lincoln U. wants to help students become more physically fit with this new policy.  And particularly within the African-American community, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are serious health concerns.

As part of the core curriculum, campus health educators weigh and measure all freshmen in the fall semester to determine each student’s body-mass index (BMI).  Those students with a BMI above 30, suggestive of obesity, must then enroll in a one-credit course called “Fitness for Life” before they graduate or reach a BMI of less than 30 in order to “test out.”

I have serious reservations about this policy. I applaud the university’s courage to make bold strides toward encouraging physical health and fitness, particularly within a vulnerable population; however, why not simply require “Fitness for Life” for all students?  I am especially concerned about the potential social and psychological damage that would be induced by this policy.  I agree with the spirit of the requirement, but only if all students are required to successfully complete the course.

One of the questions raised in the debate about the legality of this policy is quite simple: What is the difference between encouraging physical fitness vs requiring it.  Legal experts have a lot to say, but all seem to be scratching their heads.

Public-interest law professor, John F. Banzhaf III, at George Washington University describes Lincoln’s requirement as “reasonable.”  He asserts that to be considered a disability (and therefore have the policy challenged based on discrimination), obesity and the size of a person must be at a point where the individual suffers severe limitations in performing daily activities.

Peter F. Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, offers a dissenting analysis.  He suggests that a student’s BMI could be construed as legally protected medical information.

A traditional university, unlike military academies, cannot demonstrate that minimum requirements for physical fitness are central to their missions, or can they?  The educational value of a mandatory course for some, but not all students, in my opinion, cannot be successfully defended.  Lincoln’s mission statement:

Lincoln University is a premier, Historically Black University that combines the best elements of a liberal arts and sciences –based undergraduate core curriculum, and selected graduate programs to meet the needs of those living in a highly technological and global society.

Students are contributing to this conversation as well.  A Lincoln student wrote an opinion column in the Lincolnian titled “Too Fat to Graduate,” in which she objects to the mandatory fitness course.   She makes the truth plain: She came to Lincoln for an education, not to be derailed for having a “slightly high body-mass index.”  She, like I immediately felt after reading about this policy, feels that the required class should be required of ALL students.

An important perspective in this debate concerns the accuracy of BMI as an indicator of health and specifically as a measure of obesity.  J. Eric Oliver, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago, has argued that “the BMI reveals far too little about how people live, how they get sick, and why they die.”

What is your take on this policy?  This issue is begging for a poll … stay tuned!!


Two giant philanthropic efforts have made news this month.  On November 4, 2009, the Ford Foundation announced that it will commit $100 million over 7 years toward “transforming secondary education in urban schools across the country.”  Today, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it will commit $335 million “to promote effective teaching and student achievement.”  Yes, that is a combined $435 million private investment in education and research in education.

The Ford Foundation plans to fund projects in 7 cities that address 4 essential elements: 1) sufficient and equitable school financing; 2) quality teaching; 3) additional and more useful learning time; and 4) meaningful accountability.  Among these districts are the some of the usual suspects, including New York City, Denver, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, and Detroit.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is funneling $290 million in grants to support 4 Intensive Partnership for Effective Teaching sites that have developed groundbreaking plans to improve teacher effectiveness, according to its press release.  Those sites include  Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools, Memphis (Tenn.) City Schools, Pittsburgh (Pa.) Public Schools, and The College-Ready Promise, a coalition of five public charter school management organizations in Los Angeles.  Another $45 million will go toward the Measures of Effective Teaching project, a research initiative that seeks to define effective teaching and identify fairer and more reliable evaluative measures.

According to its website, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested $2 billion over 9 years in education reform efforts. I am pleased (quite pleased) to see the focus shift to teacher effectiveness investigation and to have resources committed to that end.

So I ask, what bang are we getting for these big bucks?

Other heavy-hitting foundations investing in urban education (past and present) include:


Education Policy & Practice

November 2009

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