Education is dominated by “do-gooderism.” Everybody wants to help children. But sometimes the desire to help is seen as sufficient proof that one is actually helping. And too often little thought is given to how trying to help might do some harm.
Which brings us to school breakfast programs. Who could be against helping kids by making sure they start their day with a healthy breakfast provided in school? Well, it is possible that those programs don’t do much good. And it is possible they do some harm.
Last month Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Mary Zaki of Northwestern University released their analysis of a randomized experiment in which access to free school breakfast was expanded. You can read the abstract and full report on the National Bureau of Economic Research web site. Schools that offer free breakfast often have low participation rates. So to learn about how to increase participation 70 matched pairs (or triplets) of schools participated in an experiment in which they could offer universal free school breakfast regardless of individual student eligibility for subsidized meals or breakfast in the classroom (BIC), where all students are given breakfast in their classroom at the start of the school day.
Schanzenback and Zaki conclude:
We find both policies increase the take-up rate of school breakfast, though much of this reflects shifting breakfast consumption from home to school or consumption of multiple breakfasts and relatively little of the increase is from students gaining access to breakfast. We find little evidence of overall improvements in child 24-hour nutritional intake, health, behavior or achievement, with some evidence of health and behavior improvements among specific subpopulations.
Providing breakfast in the classroom, not surprisingly, has a very large effect on whether students participate in the breakfast program because it’s given to every student in the classroom. Pretty much the only way you could not participate is by not being in school. Universal breakfast has a more modest effect on increasing participation in the program (about 10 percentage points) because students have to arrive early to get the breakfast.
So if the goal of the program is to have people participate in the program, BIC is a huge success and universal breakfast is a modest success. But if the point is to increase the amount or quality of calories students consume or to alter their behavior or learning in school, these programs don’t seem to be effective. Universal breakfast does not even seem to have an effect on whether students eat breakfast or not. It only shifts whether students eat breakfast at home or at school. BIC does increase whether students eat breakfast (or have two breakfasts), but has no effect on total caloric intake. Students just shift their eating so that they have fewer calories at other meals.
But when students eat might affect their health, behavior, and learning outcomes, so the researchers looked at whether the BIC program helped by increasing the likelihood that students would have breakfast even if those calories were offset by a reduction in eating at other times. Unfortunately it didn’t. They conclude: “The BIC treatment does not statistically significantly improve any outcome.”
So, expanding access to school breakfast does not seem to have any meaningful benefits. Where’s the harm? Leaving aside the cost to taxpayers, the greatest potential harm to these programs is that they alter the relationship between families and their schools by displacing the family’s traditional role of feeding their own children. Doing so may make the families and students feel more dependent on the government and make school teachers and administrators view families and students as generally incompetent. The state becomes the new Daddy and the parents become children incapable of providing for themselves or their own children.
This all makes me think of the new book by Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal: Please Stop Helping Us. We need to hold in check our desire to do good by remembering first to do no harm.