BMI could join MCA in Minnesota schoolsby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota's schools are more focused than ever on academic achievement. But some say that focus is coming at the expense of kids' health and physical development. Two measures working their way through the Legislature would add more focus to matters of students' weight and physical activity.
St. Paul, Minn. — There are a lot of acronyms in education in Minnesota. There are the MCAs, the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. There are the SATs and NCLB, or No Child Left Behind.
The newest? BMI. That stands for Body Mass Index. BMI is a combined measure of a person's height and weight. It's a method of calculating whether someone is overweight or even obese.
It's becoming a new measure of kids all over the country. Schools from Florida to Delaware are weighing the idea of weighing their students. Some in Pennsylvania and Wyoming are even recording it on their report cards.
Minnesota may join that field. Bills in the House and Senate are proposing that the state track the height and weight of the state's school kids.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, authored the bill in the Senate. The state needs to know what it's up against if it's going to fight fat in kids, she says.
"We know that childhood obesity leads to adult obesity. And we know that obesity is driving some of our health care costs," Berglin said. "I don't think you can know if you're investing money in the right things if you're not having a baseline measurement, and then periodically remeasuring to see how you're doing."
But the idea has its critics.
Weighing kids in school could stigmatize some students or encourage eating disorders. Teachers groups worry that it could be used to measure their own performance. Privacy advocates worry that the information might get out and prove embarrassing to kids.
A report issued in December by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contained a whole list of precautions schools needed to consider before weighing kids.
In Minnesota, the program wouldn't measure every kid, but only a representative sample, Berglin says.
But Rep. Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, still has her doubts. Swails is a teacher and sits on a House panel that rejected the body mass measurement plan earlier this week. She said she's concerned about adding to the "to do" list at Minnesota schools.
"We know that children need to be exercising more. They need to get out of the house. They need to get out from in front of the TV and they need to have healthy meals," said Swails. "A lot of this is a cultural problem. A lot of this is a family problem."
"Sometimes I think we do ask a lot of our schools, to step in and become that monitor of everything society is not measuring up," Swails continued. "My job is to be an educator. Not a public health nurse, not a parole officer. I am there to teach."
A bill in the Senate is proposing to add a half-credit of physical education to Minnesota's high school requirements. Minnesota is one of only three states in the country without one, and advocates say that may be part of what's ailing the state's students. They're not getting regular exercise during their day and they aren't getting hands on experience about staying active
Bemidji State University professor Sally Wiltse is a former gym teacher. She encouraged lawmakers keep in mind the body side of the mind body balance of students.
"What's missing is a guarantee to all kids in Minnesota that they have a minimum requirement of knowledge regarding how to be fit. Why they should be fit, and then how to be healthy," said Wiltse. "They'll never learn that, if we take away the education piece of physical education that's taught by teachers that are qualified."
A Senate committee gave preliminary approval to the requirement on Wednesday, although some lawmakers said they were reluctant to impose yet more demands on what little discretion kids have left in what classes they take.
Both the body mass measure and the phy-ed requirement may be headed for inclusion in omnibus education bills in coming days.
- All Things Considered, 03/12/2008, 5:24 p.m.