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Student Well-Being Opinion

Fixing the Problems of High School P.E.

By Deborah J. Rhea — July 02, 2009 4 min read
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Here’s the paradox. Elementary and middle school physical education programs continue to improve. More physical educators are applying solid and successful movement education and skills-approach models in the K-8 setting. At the same time, however, there is less physical education in high schools, and less expected of the students there.

This is a dangerous trend. As children mature, their percentage of body fat tends to increase, and they become less physically active. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that being unfit as a youth correlates highly with being unfit as an adult.

Physical inactivity is the second-greatest killer in the United States behind tobacco use. It can contribute to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name only a few of the medical conditions.

Yet we are creating an unhealthy adolescent population in part because of low expectations from parents and educators. Some schools, for example, allow high school students to earn their physical education credits off campus. Others require P.E. only for students who are not involved in extracurricular activities such as athletics, the drill team, cheerleading, or ROTC.

This flies in the face of studies from the CDC documenting that P.E. can help high school students gain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to engage in lifelong physical activity. But research done in 2003 showed that fewer than 56 percent of high school students were enrolled in a physical education class. Only 28 percent took P.E. daily, and just 39 percent were physically active during P.E. class. There is no indication of recent improvement.

In my state, the deterioration of high school P.E. is causing officials to ponder the utility of offering P.E. credits at this level. Some legislators feel that physical education is not reaching the students anyway. So why spend money on employing P.E. teachers when the funds could be directed to hiring instructors in other disciplines to boost state test scores? That would be the easy way out, and would not combat obesity or other problems linked to a sedentary lifestyle.

Here are some suggestions for putting high school physical education back on track:

Make physical education classes smaller. We have seen a trend over the past 20 years of administrators’ expecting P.E. teachers to take on larger numbers of students, in a crowded environment, and control them without assistance. In some settings, P.E. teachers unable to control large classes are considered by administrators to be less-than-quality teachers that they should replace or put on probation. This is simply wrong. Schools should hire more certified physical education teachers and decrease class sizes from 40 or more students to 30 or fewer.

Give administrative support to physical education. Many school administrators never darken the doors of the gym as long as complaints are minimal. And they often schedule other school activities in the P.E. teacher’s classroom (the gym), and expect the teacher either to sit for the class period or do some alternative activity that may not have any P.E. value at all. Assemblies, science fairs, and book fairs often find homes in the gym—at the expense of P.E.

Require physical education teachers to teach P.E. An administrator could walk into some high school gyms and find physical education teachers who also are coaches planning workouts for the athletes they will see later in the day. Not all P.E. teachers who coach do this, of course. But it is not unusual in programs where sports are deemed more important than physical education. Administrators too often miss the opportunity to hold lazy teachers accountable and to praise the ones who are doing a great job.

Physical educators bear some responsibility for reversing the trajectory of high school P.E. programs. We need to hold ourselves accountable before others will consider changing the situation. P.E. teachers must maintain or begin to build high expectations for their students. These should include dressing appropriately for physical education, starting class punctually, engaging in many different activities, and displaying good attitudes and behaviors.

We should promote our programs among administrators, educate them about the positive things that result from having P.E. in schools. Inform and teach parents also, by inviting them to visit a P.E. class to see what really goes on there, and showing how such activities will lead to lifelong benefits.

Inform your state legislators about the importance of minimizing class sizes and keeping physical education in the high school setting. This is a prime time to make your feelings known to state lawmakers, especially in states like mine, where there is a bill on the table to possibly delete electives. Be proactive.

Physical educators are allowing others to dictate what happens to their profession, instead of taking control of events. A coordinated, multilevel approach involving schools, communities, and policymakers will be needed to increase participation in daily, high-quality physical education for all students.

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