USDA should reconsider how far to reduce salt content in school meals

Just One Minute has an interesting summary of three recent studies of salt and health. Some news reports focus on the dangers of too much salt, other reports about the same studies say the currently recommended amount of salt may be too low. “New research suggests that healthy people can eat about twice the amount of salt that’s currently recommended — or about as much as most people consume anyway,” NBC news reports. “The controversial findings could potentially undercut widespread public health messages about salt.”

More from the NBC report:

An international study of more than 100,000 people published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that while there is a relationship between salt intake and high blood pressure, if you don’t already have high blood pressure and you’re not over 60 or eating way too much salt, salt won’t have much impact on your blood pressure.

In fact, people who consumed 3,000 to 6,000 milligrams per day had a lower risk of death and cardiovascular events than those who had more than 6,000 mg or less than 3,000 mg.

This tends to lend support to the position of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which recommends suspending the implementation of sodium Target 2 pending the availability of scientific research that supports the reduction in daily sodium intake for children. To see the reductions scheduled to be made by school year 2017-18, as as well as the final target scheduled for 2022-23, see the table below:

Previous Nutrient Standards

Current Standards K-12 (as of 7/1/12)


Reduce, no set targets

Target  1: SY 2014-15


Target 2: SY 2017-18

Final target: 2022-23






















SNA makes the following recommendation:

Retain the July 1, 2014 Target 1 sodium levels, and suspend implementation of further sodium levels unless and until scientific research supports such reductions for children. Schools are already making significant reductions in the sodium levels on school menus to meet the first sodium reduction target, which goes into effect in July 2014.

Here are the reasons SNA gives for this recommendation:

The Institute of Medicine states that before advancing to Target 2, “it would be appropriate to assess progress and effects of the actions on student participation rates, food cost, safety and food service operations to determine a reasonable target for the next period. The committee recognizes that reducing the sodium content of school meals as specified and in a way that is well accepted by students will present major challenges and may not be possible.” (School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children)

Naturally occurring sodium present in milk, meats and other foods, make the later sodium targets extremely difficult to achieve. Popular and healthy choices such as low-fat, whole grain cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese and deli sandwiches could be stripped from school menus if manufacturers are unable to develop cheeses that meet these extreme standards.

Many schools have already experienced increased plate waste, increased costs, and declines in student participation as they have transitioned to lower-sodium foods. Before school meal programs are forced to make additional costly changes, more scientific research should be done into the efficacy of further reducing children’s sodium intake.

Petition launched for starting Maryland schools after Labor Day

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot is launching a petition to delay the opening of public schools until after Labor Day.

This effort is supported by the tourism industry and opposed by the Maryland State Education Association, the Public School Superintendents Association of Maryland and the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

On May 19, 2014, a state task force endorsed a post-Labor Day start by a vote of  12-3. Lillian M. Lowery, the State Superintendent of Schools, sent a letter to Governor Martin O’Malley, Mike Miller, Jr., the President of the Senate, and Michael E. Busch, the Speaker of the House, on June 25 explaining the recommendations of the task force.

See also Should Maryland public schools open after Labor Day? and Maryland comptroller says schools should start after Labor Day.

Should schools allow a recess break every hour?

Deseret News reports, “For every 45 minutes in a Finnish classroom, students get a 15-minute break.” An American teacher who started teaching in Finland was surprised by how much more attentive students were after having a recess break after every hour of instruction. When he started teaching in Finland, he first created longer blocks of class time with a longer break later in the day. However, a fifth-grader objected, “I need my 75 minutes of recess.”

Although Walker was providing the same amount of recess, he decided to revise the schedule, putting breaks at the end of each hour.

The difference in the classroom was immediate. No more zombies. Students returned from breaks with energy and better focus. They did more with less time. They enjoyed it more. Walker was a convert.

Olga Jarret, a retired education professor at Georgia State University, has written a white paper for the U.S. Play Coalition noting that there are multiple studies that show “improved focus and classroom behavior, including less fidgeting and hyperactivity and more participation in class discussion after recess.”

Play helps in brain development

Scientists say child’s play helps build a better brain. NPR focuses on how play relates to learning. According to Sergio Pellis, a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”

Pellis says children need to have plenty of time for free play without rules or coaches. He also says that play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of the brain. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed.”

I wonder whether further study would find other situations where the neurons are changed. Another question would be, what is the definition of play? Can’t work be experienced as play sometimes? I’ll have to find out more about these issues.

I’m glad that Fairfax County has officially ended the previous limit of 10 minutes per day for recess; however, I hope that the new 20-minute recesses being scheduled are not necessarily a maximum amount of time. If they are, further study needs to be made of the overall time in the elementary schedule for the 2015-16 school year. There should be enough flexibility in the schedule to allow 30-minute recess periods.

Lengthening the school day can be a complex task

Recently there has been publicity about a school in New Haven, CT, that tried, and then abandoned a longer school day after only one year. The National Center on Time & Learning gives an analysis of this example and concludes, “The bottom line…is that expanding time for schools is no easy task. It takes inordinate amounts of foresight, coordination, and patience to reap a payoff.”

David Farbman
David Farbman

David Farbman reports that the principal “decided in March of the first school year that students outcomes had not improved and, thus, the ‘experiment’ in having more learning time had failed. Anyone who has worked with schools undertaking substantial school reform will tell you that it takes at least three years before academic outcomes begin to show steady gains. The reasons for the delay, in large part, is that improved educational quality is not simply about having more minutes of learning time, but also about modifying instructional practices to take advantage of the greater quantity of lesson time.”

Farbmen also noted that although teachers were paid more for their longer hours, the contracts of secretaries and paraprofessionals were not amended. “Had the school planned sufficiently for the transition to a longer day and worked out all the contract issues for all school staff, such problems would likely not have arisen.”

Revisiting year-round school in Fairfax

The Fairfax Times urges Superintendent Karen Garza and the Fairfax County School Board to revisit the pros and cons of a modified calendar for some schools. “During the decade the year-round program was in place at Dogwood, Graham Road and other Fairfax-based elementary schools, teachers, students, and parents gave it rave reviews,” the Times said.

Proponents cite increased student achievement, improved attendance and expanded opportunities for remediation and enrichment. Many also believe the modified calendar also minimizes holiday learning loss, particularly in math and science.

Although there have been no budget amendments for year-round schools in the past few years, Sandy Evans (Mason District) has publicly expressed her interest in giving some schools this option at some point.

Are traditional methods of math instruction better for most students?

After I posted a brief notice about Elizabeth Green’s article on better math instruction, I heard several dissenting views. Also, there were 948 comments posted on the New York Times website. Here are some excerpts from some of the skeptical comments:

Frank commented, “Teaching in Japan now, I find the article disingenuous: Japanese largely learn math today the way people have for the last couple thousand years, memorization and repetition. The number one after school program is Kumon, which provides worksheet after worksheet of math problems.”

Mike Brady asked, “…isn’t the practice of constantly changing textbooks and methods a tremendous way to insure profits for the publishing corporations? Interesting how Math education in the USA worked well enough to educate USA scientists and inventors and technology experts prior to the Publishing Corporations’ New Math/Common Core.”

Barbarossa said, “The premise that the ‘classical way of teaching maths is ineffective” is simply wrong. This evidenced by all the countries that teach math the classical way (Korea, Iran, France, Russia, India, …) get good results and whose students populate all major STEM graduate programs in the US.

Barry Garelick said, “The education establishment may believe they are producing “little mathematicians,” but the increased enrollments in remedial math courses in universities tell a different and disturbing story.

johna  said, “My son, now 16, went to elementary school in the Seattle area, in a school district that employed the “discovery” method (similar to common core). Not only did the teachers do a poor job of explaining the math to my son, none of the teachers, the school district or the text books made any attempt to explain the approach to the parents. As such, not only were we ill-equipped to help my son with his homework, we were actively discouraged from helping him by using the traditional algorithms. As the article warns, the end result was to replace a familiar set of steps (which, though rote, actually work to get the right answer) with a set of even stranger rituals (that don’t work nearly as well). I’ll never forget the many nights my son spent drawing rows and rows of dots, rectangles, lines and other shapes, which, from his perspective, must appear to have been assigned for the sheer purpose of frustrating and confusing him, because they certainly didn’t help him understand math. That’ why all the parents in our neighborhood wound up sending their kids to Kumon.”

Kumon is an after school program. Another  traditional math instruction curriculum was developed by John Saxon. Nakonia (Niki) Hayes recently wrote that “Saxon literally popped onto the national math education scene unexpectedly and uninvited in 1981 after self-publishing his first algebra textbook.”

Saxon scoffed when reformists insisted that historically-proven mathematics, which had been developed over 2,000 years by diverse cultures from around the world, was effective only with “white males” in America—and “Asians.” Then, he would explode with anger over what he called disastrous teaching materials and methods being purchased without proof of their results.

More teacher training could lead to better math instruction

“Parents are rebelling against the Common Core, even though its approach–fostering intuition through real-world examples–is the best way to teach math to kids,” Elizabeth Green argues.”The real problem: No one has shown the teachers how to teach it.”

This New York Times Magazine article cites research showing that Japanese 8th grade students in the study initiated the method for solving a problem in 40 percent of the lessons; Americans initiated 9 percent of the time. “Similarly 96 percent of the American students’ work fell into the category of ‘practice,’ while Japanese students spend only 41 percent of their time practicing. Almost half of Japanese students’ time was spent doing work that the researchers termed ‘invent/think.’ (American students spent less than 1 percent of their time on it.)”

Green also notes that in Finland and Japan, “teachers teach for 600 or fewer hours each school year, leaving them ample time to prepare, revise and learn. By contrast, American teachers spend nearly 1,100 hours with little feedback.

The school board took lots of time to decide on full-day Mondays

A myth seems to be developing that the Fairfax County School Board acted too quickly to implement full-day Mondays for elementary schools. On the contrary, the school board procrastinated for years and years.

Anyone who says the school board didn’t have enough information has not been paying attention. Also, those who say the school board didn’t give time for community input have it all backwards. The recent poll shows overwhelming support from parents for full-day Mondays. The exact figures in a specific poll are not important. The real problem is that the school board ignored this widespread dissatisfaction for so many years.

Clearly there was something lacking in the governance process to allow this problem to drag on for so long.

Money for full-day Mondays

The Washington Post has an article regarding tonight’s agenda item for the Fairfax County School Board on allocating money for full-day Mondays in the elementary schools.

The article includes comments from some members of the Board of Supervisors on whether they would provide any additional money. I posted a comment to the article, noting that although it is probably true, as Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) said, that school officials had not mentioned a need to end half-day Mondays during their lengthy budget negotiations, I mentioned it and discussed it with my supervisor, Penny Gross (D-Mason). She is well aware of how inadequate the Monday early dismissal schedule has been for the elementary schools.

Under this schedule, the only way the elementary schools can comply with the state requirements for the length of the school day would be to limit recess to 10 minutes per day. I have not heard any of the supporters of the status quo argue in favor of a limit of 10 minutes per day for recess. I have also not heard any calls for a deliberate policy of not meeting the state standards for the length of the school day. So, in essence, the school board really has no choice but to fix this inadequate schedule. The Board of Supervisors should encourage and support the schools system’s effort to remedy the serious problem with the elementary school schedule. Following state regulations is critically important. The solution must be implemented immediately, even if it means that nonrecurring funds are used.