"Small" Measures: Starting Times, Recess, and Lunches
Studies have repeatedly shown that everyone, but children with developing brains in particular, 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 doctor who'd studied sleep habits for many years shared information (which I've roughly paraphrased) that adolescent sleep cycles tend to begin at 3 AM and end at 11 AM. Yet we're starting school at 7 or 7:30 AM. While I wouldn't quite change school start times to 11 AM (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 AM (as many often do), wake up at 8, shower and eat breakfast, and go to school with 8 rather than 5 or 6 hours of sleep.
Another step: make cafeteria lunches better. There would be a cap on the amount of sodium, fat, and calorie content allowed in each lunch. Nonfat or 1-2% milk (and in smaller containers--who really drinks that much milk?) instead of whole, no chocolate milk, no soft drinks, and no vending machines with unhealthy items. A certain percentage of food served would have to be organic and/or local. Have smaller portions to help minimize cost (we all know how much food gets dumped out). Have the school's foods classes, and maybe the entire student body, help make lunch on certain days.
This might be controversial among students, but I think it would be a good idea to have randomly assigned seating during lunch. 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, I think 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?) I don't want to sound too uptight, but it might be useful to have lunchtime (or at least part of it) double as a class in good manners and etiquette--particularly helpful for students who don't often have the ability to experience fine dining. Not to mention it might cut down on food fight incidents.
Making nutritious school lunches would be an excellent way to begin combating child obesity; another way would be to bring back recess, at all grade levels. In middle and high school you might have a somewhat more organized approach (as in, now we're going to be playing Capture the Flag), depending on students, because I could envision people 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 fifteen-minute vigorous game-playing time? A lot has been said about boys being kinesthenic learners, and I'm sure it wouldn't hurt anyone to move around more.
In my second part, Education Opinions Part 2 (the "big" changes), I'll be talking about changing the age-based grade system, authority hierarchy in school, and online learning.