09/07/2011 11:15 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Why Education "Reform" Could Bankrupt Us

America can no longer afford to separate education, health, and social services into separate silos. And we risk bankruptcy if our schools continue to focus on a narrow portion of our children's brains. The problem is not the tens of billions of dollars that have largely been wasted on data-driven "reform." We can not afford the "opportunity costs" of not treating kids as full human beings.

For instance, a recent discussion of obesity rates during NPR's The Diane Rehm Show provided a glimpse into the opportunity costs of our ill-fated experiment with test-driven accountability. Similarly, it is hard to read the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's "F as in Fat" without wishing the effort devoted during last two decades to raise test scores had been directed towards teaching healthy lifestyles.

Obesity kills more than 110,000 Americans every year. Our annual bill for obesity-related health costs is $150 billion per year. We will be paying $450 billion in additional Medicare costs in the next decade due to obesity. But only 10 percent of elementary school children have daily physical education.

More than a third of our children (between age 10 and 17) are overweight, and less than a third engage in vigorous daily activity. But the trends are even more frightening. Fifteen years ago, no state had an obesity rate in excess of 19.4 percent. Now, the state with the least obesity has a rate of 19.8 percent. Nationally, obesity rates are projected to reach 50 percent by 2030.

There are many other aspects of healthy living that should be taught in the test-prep factories, formerly known as schools, that are being ignored because they are "not on the test." Teaching children nutrition and healthful practices is not some simple task that can be checked off educators' "to do lists" in their spare time. To meet this challenge, we must devote far more time to planning and implementing coordinated solutions.

If a concern for children's quality of life sounds too touchy feely for the accountability hawks, perhaps they will listen to the evidence about the better ways to improve classroom performance. In a 2010 literature review that examined the effect of school-based physical activity programs on academic performance, Center for Disease Control found a body of evidence suggesting that:

*Increased time in physical education classes were linked to
positive achievement test scores.

*Short classroom physical activity breaks of about 5 to 20
minutes improved students' attention span, classroom behavior
and achievement tests scores.

*Participation in sports teams and physical activity clubs, often
run before- and after- school, has positive effects on students'
grade point averages and likelihood of graduation.

*Recess can play a role in improving students' attention and
concentration in class.

Neither can we continue to starve preschool programs and ignore children's welfare until they reach the tested grades. A huge new study of Chicago's early childhood program, found even more evidence that high-quality early education is the most cost effective approach. It concluded that preschool increased the high school graduation rate of its participants by 9 percent. Researchers found that children who received those services were "20 percent more likely to achieve a higher level of socioeconomic status, 22 percent less likely to have a felony arrest, and 28 percent less likely to spend time in prison."

Obesity prevention and early education are just two issues that have been de-prioritized due to our bubble-in obsession. The reason why I stress them is that they have been the focus of so much scientific analysis in the last few weeks. Other issues that should take precedence over test score growth include pre-natal care, the teaching of better parenting practices, teen pregnancy prevention, drug education, and teaching citizenship. Schools, alone, can not solve those problems. Our schools, however, are the natural home base for the team effort required to address those challenges, but they already have far too much on their plates.

So, first, we must hold the accountability hawks accountable. We need a tough-minded cost benefit analysis of teaching to a narrow part of the brain, neglecting the whole child, and then calling upon the separate parts of our fragmented and tattered social safety net to clean up afterwards.

Then, we must reconsider the energy, time, and money devoted to aligning data systems, tests, and punitive evaluation systems. Those resources must be directed to the alignment of our human capital. To do that, we must unite all of our community resources into a team effort, without regard to whether providers call themselves educators, health care professionals, or social workers.