My mom once asked me about the first steps I would hypothetically take to make a "better school." I don't claim to be an education expert, but I do have personal opinions about the ideal school -- one I'd like to go to. Among many other things, I said that I would change school starting times, improve cafeteria lunches, and bring back recess. These would be good first steps because they help a lot of students a little bit. And they can have wide-reaching impacts.
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, especially children with developing brains, need a good amount of high-quality sleep. It's difficult to get when you have to worry about waking up at 7 in the morning to go to school. Not everyone is a morning lark, and by starting school so early, not only students but also educators have to stave off yawns throughout the day.
I was at a conference where a well-respected sleep researcher, Dr. James Maas, revealed that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 a.m. and end at 11 a.m. Yet we're starting school at 7 or 7:30 a.m. While I wouldn't quite change school start times to 11 a.m. (since we have to consider parents who have to go to work), I think it would be reasonable to move them to 8:45 AM or after. Then hypothetically a teenager could go to bed at 12 a.m. (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with eight rather than five or six hours of sleep.
Another step: improve cafeteria lunches. Put a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Mandate nonfat or 1 to 2 percent milk (and in smaller containers -- who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole milk. Get rid of chocolate milk, soft drinks, and vending machines with unhealthy items. Require a certain percentage of food served be organic and/or local, and have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school's cooking classes (or maybe the entire student body) help make lunch on certain days.
A bigger step: I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. This might be controversial among students, but the social division that occurs when students simply pick out where they want to sit can be hurtful and exclusive to students new to the school or children with difficulty making friends. Also, it seems that teachers rarely eat lunch and converse with the students. I've learned a lot from being able to have conversations with adults. So, teachers would be required to eat lunch with the students -- at least on certain days -- (and really, if they really can't stand students to the extent that they can't eat with them, should they be teaching?)
While making nutritious school lunches would be an excellent way to start combating childhood obesity, bringing back recess, at all grade levels, could do even more (as well as markedly increasing cognitive ability). In middle and high school you might have a somewhat more organized approach (depending on students, because it isn't hard to envision students simply standing around and talking to each other instead of exercising.
Perhaps instead of a dreaded required class one semester of junior high, physical education could become a fun, daily 15 to 20 minute class -- where healthy behaviors, like calisthenics, frequent exercise, jogging, and hiking, would be modeled every day. Students could get involved actively in the "curriculum," by submitting their favorite exercise activities and voting on which new things to try.
I want to talk about "big" changes I would make in education (if I were in a position of incredible power!) -- multiple, age-independent, subject-based grade levels; online learning; and authority hierarchy in school.