Learning from others: How to make school (lunch) great

Steve Jobs famously said: “we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.” In his latest documentary, Where To Invade Next, Michael Moore “invades” country after country, looking for lifestyles worth appropriating – so that he can plant the American flag upon them and bring them home.

Of particular interest to me were his school visits.

The French school dining experience

Moore sits for a 1-hour lunch in a French school cafeteria and is served a 4-course meal, in real plates, with water in a real glass. He brings a can of Coke with him, and asks the kids if they ever drink that. None of them do, and none are interested in trying. There are no sugary drinks or vending machines in French schools. Meals are planned by a chef and a planning committee and cooked from scratch. There’s always a cheese course – the favorite cheese in that particular school is Camembert. There are no “kids' foods” served and French fries are a biannual dish.

Moore visits an ordinary school, he claims, in a lower-income neighborhood. I do believe that he didn’t cherry pick a French school lunch, as there are multiple such reports, and the nutrition standards of the school lunch are set by government policy. French kids do eat better, and that they get a culinary education at school that lasts a lifetime, and results in better health and lower obesity rates. Their school cafeteria reflects widespread French values, and the school environment is consistent with what many parents do at home.

The question is can we import this, and how.

Forget homework, be happy!

Moore also visits a school in Finland, a small country with one of the best education systems in the world. According to the movie the secret to the Finns’ success is little or no homework, no standardized tests, and that play, freedom and happiness are the teachers’ top priority. The kids spend only 3-4 easygoing hours at school, where they learn a variety of skills, such as cooking, arts and crafts.

According to the film all you need is to set kids free – less is apparently more.

Could it really be so simple? This sounds too much like a miracle diet – the kind that promises that fat will melt away while you’re eating lots of cookies.

Well, the Finnish school system did vastly improve its reading, math and science scores but ditching homework was hardly the only or the main thing on the road to success. You don’t need to dig deep to find that editing out things-kids-hate is not the only difference between the US and Finland. Teachers in Finland are professionals, selected from the top of the nation’s graduates, and all have a master’s degree in education. Teaching is a very prestigious and selective job that’s highly sought-after and is well paid. Classes are small. Schools are small, and most teachers know all the kids not just in their class, but also in all others. There are no private schools -- all schools are equal. There are no hungry or homeless kids, and everyone has the same, free, healthcare. Parents get a year of paid leave to care for their new baby.

And it took 40 years to turn Finland’s schools around – 40 years of sustained effort, prioritization, planning and funding. The international science scores rose only in the last decade. Finland’s education overnight success was decades in the making.

Unfortunately, this is the real nature of change. It’s usually hard, protracted, sometimes ugly work. It also doesn’t make for great entertainment and would leave little screen time for the invasion of other countries – I found Moore’s Germany and Iceland invasions especially compelling.

But it can be done. Others have done it. The movie ends kind of optimistically with the thought that positive change sometimes takes a leap; Moore reflects on the fall of the Berlin Wall, pointing that advances sometimes surprisingly accelerate all of a sudden. But even the drama of November 9th 1989 was actually preceded by a gradual collapse behind-the-scenes.

Leaps can hardly be expected. School food is improving bit by bit, in small incremental changes, and although the kids of today deserve a perfect school lunch, we can take some solace knowing that things are moving in the right direction. I’m all for big dreams, as long as we don’t get discouraged by how long it usually takes to implement change and improve things in a big old system.

I’m hopeful. And I think Moore wants us to be jealous, angry, ashamed enough to do something -- but in the end optimistic.

Dr. Ayala

I’m all for big dreams, as long as we don’t get discouraged by how long it usually takes to implement change and improve things