Dodge ball--the time-honored tradition of physical education that can elicit unflappable enthusiasm or paralyzing dread. Team captains choose up sides, selecting first the best athletes, then reluctantly divvying up the rest: most of the girls, the skinniest or fattest, the uncoordinated.
After teams take their places on opposing sides of the gymnasium, the onslaught begins. Large rubber balls are hurled back and forth, whizzing within inches of the students who dodge and dive out of their paths. Those who are too slow or indifferent get pegged in the arm or leg or even the back of the head with the ball, then escape to the sidelines where they sit and watch their more talented classmates continue the game.
For many adults, dodge ball, and a variety of other competitive team sports, dominate their memories of gym class, as do repetitive tasks like calisthenics and laps around the track.
Those recollections have led many adults to conclude that, at best, PE is a glorified recess with little academic value and, at worst, a cruel, humiliating ritual that rewards only the most athletic and competitive children.
Consequently, parents and policymakers are increasingly saying that such valuable class time could be better spent on academic areas--just at a point when American children need more physical activity in their lives and when some districts have redefined what physical education is.
“There has been a substantial erosion of PE programs over the last 10 to 15 years,” says Charles T. Kuntzleman, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Michigan who has done extensive research on physical education. “There is more and more emphasis on computers and other necessary courses, and parents are questioning the appropriateness of PE as they experienced it. They don’t see this as being relevant to their child’s educational experience.”
Much of the problem, teachers and advocates say, stems from a distorted image that downplays the importance of physical education.
“People have a perception of phys ed that mirrors their own experience,” says Judith Young, the executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, which represents teachers. “If they didn’t have a good program, that’s how they perceive it.”
Admittedly, in thousands of schools across the nation PE class is dominated by mainstream team sports. And, educators concede, many classes are a free-for-all with little formal guidance.
But the new generation of gym classes is as likely to include in-line skating, aerobics, and biking as it is basketball and soccer. They may also teach children about movement, nutrition, and an overall healthy lifestyle, a holistic approach advocated in the national standards that NASPE crafted.
Schools in California, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Texas, and Washington are among the growing cadre of converts that are experimenting with new curricula to get more students excited about fitness and health.
Educators and public health officials hope that the trend will help to enhance the image and encourage parents and lawmakers to demand more, rather than less, physical education for children.
Some experts, however, are wary that even with the new PE philosophy there is the potential for poor execution. Spouting statistics about heart disease and other risks of sedentary living, giving students cursory instruction in a smorgasbord of activities, or promoting only the recreational attributes of fitness will not produce the desired results, warns R. Scott Kretchmar, a professor of exercise and sport science at Pennsylvania State University. These approaches, however, tend to dominate the field.
“All these approaches give very little return. We need to find ways to attract students to the joys of movement and make it as powerful as the draw of computers and television,” says Kretchmar.
If the new PE doesn’t get the critics’ attention, proponents are keeping their fingers crossed that the pitiful shape of the nation will.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just last month advocated a leading role for school physical education programs in promoting lifelong physical activity among young people. In response to recent health studies that show Americans are perhaps more out of shape now than ever before, the federal agency in Atlanta called for daily physical education for students in 1st through 12th grades.
But in many states and districts, experts say that schools have been moving in the opposite direction. Last year, Massachusetts eliminated the state-required minimum time spent in physical education, and Idaho freed its high schoolers from physical education.
Districts have shaved years, days, and minutes off their physical education requirements. A U.S. Surgeon General’s report on physical activity and health, released last year, indicates that only 25 percent of high school students participated in daily physical education in 1995, down from 42 percent five years earlier. At the elementary level, classroom teachers often lead their students in physical education, raising questions of safety.
Nearly a decade ago, in an effort to get more children physically fit, Congress passed a resolution encouraging states and districts to offer quality, daily physical education for all students. Illinois alone adopted such a requirement.
But even Illinois’ definition of physical education leaves a lot to be desired in the view of experts. Among the activities it counts toward the requirement--band and recess.
A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 1997 edition of Education Week as As Some Skate Forward, Others Dodge PE