Since I taught English for thirty-three years, you’d probably assume that I would argue for language arts/English as the most important class our children take throughout their years in public schools. And you would be wrong. I’m not saying that English isn’t important; learning to communicate effectively, not to mention appreciating the beauty of literary works, is a significant and worthwhile objective of our schools. I heartily endorse requiring English education every year throughout a student’s K-12 experience. But one class trumps even the wonder that is English: Physical Education.
The abstract reasons for this are clear: No matter how educated, successful, or famous you happen to be; none of those things will matter if you don’t have your health. Learning how to take care of your physical well-being should be a top priority for any human being. From the dangerous substances we tend to ingest (tobacco and alcohol to name two) to understanding how our bodies function and the habits necessary to maintain our wondrous machinery, we should learn as much as we can to keep our health and to improve it.
We also have to work those machines as often as we can to keep them operating well. The activities our kids do in P.E. class contribute to their health. Not only do P.E. classes teach us the rules of the road when it comes to staying fit, but they provide a foundation for using that knowledge to improve our well-being. My daughters’ junior high P.E. classes do fifteen-minute fitness runs where they use heart-rate monitors to reach a cardio-vascular appropriate heart rate. As a result, they understand what level is optimal as well as experiencing just how to achieve and maintain their personal pace.
And we can’t forget the games we all learn as part of our P.E. classes. Playing basketball, softball, tennis, soccer, tumbling, swimming, football, dancing, badminton, floor hockey, volleyball, and other sports expose us to activities that not only improve our fitness, but are fun. And these are games we can enjoy and from which we can benefit for the rest of our lives.
We need to take advantage of that benefit, too, since our sedentary, busy lifestyles have led Americans to become one of the least fit countries in the world. So it seems absurd that physical education classes have faded from the curricula of many schools in the country. Illinois, to its credit, is the only state in the country that has mandatory daily requirements for physical education classes in grades K-12. Yet even Illinois permits waivers for PE under some circumstances, letting athletes skip P.E. classes for a semester to play football or bowl, even though those seasons don’t even last the entire semester.
And many states require less physical education: Colorado has no state requirements at all; individual districts determine how much and if P.E. is needed. Florida has no P.E. requirements for grades K-8, and only mandates two semesters (out of eight) in high school. High schools in Idaho are not required to offer P.E. In Nebraska, only local districts can impose any requirements, and no standards or fitness tests are required by the state. Wisconsin has P.E. three times a week in grades K-6, 7-8 graders need meet only once a week, and high school students have to pass three semester’s worth of P.E. Yet every health organization I know recommends physical activity at least five times a week, especially for growing children. Is it any wonder that the U.S. is the second fattest country in the world, with 31.8% of Americans obese? (The US was recently rolled from its perch as fattest country in the world by Mexico with 32.8% obese and trails Japan badly—only 4.5% of the Japanese are obese.)
And if anything, the trend is moving further away from physical education as an integral part of schools. My daughter’s junior high recently changed its curriculum so that an improved STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) program could be incorporated. In doing so, it changed the P.E. class schedule so that instead of one period of active physical education every day with health as an additional class for one quarter each year, health now is rotated in once a quarter for two weeks INSTEAD of P.E. during that time. In other words, the physical activity portion of P.E. has been reduced by eight weeks each school year. Band also got a time boost under this arrangement so that during my daughter’s sixth grade year, she had band every day for a full period as well as getting pulled out of another class once a week for a lesson. Not only did she lose eight weeks of P.E., but she spent more time in band than any other class.
P.E. has never had strong support from parents from what I’ve seen. Everyone pretty much ignores it. For example, I’m writing this one week before parent-teacher conferences are scheduled to take place at my daughter’s junior high, which has a computerized system for signing up for the eighteen slots available for each teacher during the evening on which conferences are scheduled. That system allows you to see just what times are available and how many conferences have been scheduled. For the three P.E. (including health) teachers, nine of the available fifty-four (17%) slots had been requested, despite these three teachers teaching every student in the school (over three hundred kids). Contrast that with my daughter’s math (18 of 18 slots already filled), social studies (18 of 18), and science (13 of 18) teachers who have a combined forty-nine of fifty-four (89%) conference times taken. And those three teachers have a third the number of students (only the seventh graders) in their classes as the P.E. teachers do (who teach every sixth, seventh, and eighth grader).
And some P.E. departments have not helped themselves in this quest for relevance. In the high school where I used to work (and where I met my wife who was a P.E./Health teacher at the time), P.E. has been excluded from the grade point average of students. What that means is that when class rank, honor rolls, and the like are figured, the grade a student has received for P.E. isn’t counted. That supposedly straight-A student might actually have a D in P.E., but no one seems to care. And when it was suggested years ago that P.E. should be included like every other class, many of the P.E. teachers at the time argued strongly against that change, insisting that the “stress reduction” purpose of a more recess-like P.E. period was preferable to injecting more standards or rigor into the class. So many of the kids in the high school don’t take P.E. very seriously, and even some of their P.E. teachers seem to see their classes as an irritant to be endured until they can get to their true calling, coaching.
With the Common Core push attracting all kinds of attention, with outside agencies creating standards for schools that often have little resemblance to individual school’s situation; we should at least take advantage of this flawed trend to focus on an area where there is much greater unanimity on appropriate standards: Physical Fitness. While nothing is ever completely figured out or static, we do know a great deal about what it takes to be healthy. What we eat and how we exercise have been studied extensively, so we can and should begin work on Common Core standards relating to physical education classes and the overall health of our kids. From our lunch rooms to our playgrounds to our gyms to our classrooms, our children need more stringent guidance on taking care of the most precious gift they have been given—their bodies. That physical education is not a higher priority in this country is a huge oversight, but it is one that we can easily address. A body is a terrible thing to waste.
For more on school reform, see James Crandell’s website http://www.snowflake-schools.com/.