Moving breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom may help increase test scores without eating up much instructional time, a new study has found.
The study, published online March 14, is scheduled to appear in a future issue of the peer-refereed Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. For the study, Scott Imberman, an associate economics professor at Michigan State University, and Adriana Kugler, a public policy professor at Georgetown University, analyzed math and reading test results for 6,353 5th graders at 84 schools in a large (200,000-student) high-poverty Southwestern school district that is not named in the article. During the study period in the spring of 2010, the district was in the process of moving its universal, free school breakfast program from the cafeteria to the classroom in order to make it easier for students to eat their morning meal at school.
Some of the schools moved breakfast from the cafeteria to the classroom prior to state exams. For logistical reasons, an otherwise similar set of schools waited until after the testing period had ended.
The researchers found that 5th graders who had the opportunity to eat breakfast in the classroom scored slightly higher in both reading and in math than did students at schools that were still providing the meal in the cafeteria. The differences were the equivalent of moving from the 50th to the 54th percentile in math and from the 50th to the 52nd percentile in reading. The increases were larger for students who were lower-performing, lower-income, and skinnier.
However, Imberman and Kugler found no differences in the classroom grades of students at schools that moved breakfast to the classroom earlier rather than later in the term.
“While this could be due to teachers curving their grades to match the new higher performance of students, this is also consistent with the achievement results being due to improved test performance rather than learning,” they write.
Even if in-breakfast classrooms do, indeed, improve test scores without increasing learning, this could still benefit students and schools since schools with low test scores face sanctions under federal and state accountability rules, the researchers note. In the district studied, students who failed the 5th grade tests were also supposed to be retained in grade.
Imberman and Kugler argued that, for these reasons, in-classroom breakfasts are cost-effective interventions since they raise test scores at an added expense of $91 per student, per year. In-classroom breakfast did not cause the cost-per-breakfast to rise. Rather, the increases occurred because the proportion of students who ate breakfast at school grew. A district analysis found that the percent of school breakfast eaters rose from 33 percent to 88 percent. (Nationwide, about half of children who participate in the free or reduced-price lunch program also eat breakfast at school.) One reason for the increase was that schools did more than relocate breakfast. They also rescheduled it from before to after the start of the school day, meaning students no longer needed to arrive early if they wanted breakfast.
Imberman and Kugler noted that a survey conducted by the district they studied found that moving breakfast to the classroom consumed a limited amount of instructional time; 93 percent of principals said the in-classroom breakfast took 15 minutes or less. However, in Chicago, Los Angeles and other districts that started serving breakfast in the classroom, teachers have expressed serious concerns about losing out on class time. They have also said that in-classroom breakfasts create messes that attract insects and rodents, especially when schools do not have enough custodians.
Educators and parents also worry that children who eat breakfast at home may be tempted to eat the meal again in school if it is served in the classroom during the school day, putting them at risk of obesity. After years of increases, childhood obesity rates have leveled off in the past decade to 17 percent of those between the ages of 2 and 19. However, there is also evidence of a growing gap between the obesity rates of youth from higher-income families and those from lower-income families, where children are more likely to be obese as a result of consuming high-calorie, low-cost food.
Imberman and Kugler had no way of knowing whether the policy they studied led children to gain unhealthy amounts of weight because they were doubling up on breakfast. However, in their paper, they cite past research that found that on weekdays when children ate breakfast at school, their total daily food intake was actually lower than it was on weekends, when school meals were unavailable. They also noted that 12 to 35 percent of children skip breakfast entirely each day, a practice that can also increase the risk of obesity because extreme hunger later in the day may lead to overeating.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.