The percentage of schools that offered students regular physical education classes declined from 2000 to 2006, but school sports opportunities appeared to be increasing nationwide, according to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office.
Some experts, however, cautioned that the findings, based largely on a data set from the early 2000s to the middle of that decade, provide an inaccurate picture of the fiscal reality schools now face.
“The last three years have been devastating, both for physical education and for sports,” said Paul Caccamo, the executive director of Up2Us, a New York City-based coalition of nonprofit organizations that aims to support youth-sports programs. “Saying that the opportunities for sports have increased based on data from 2006 and a dozen interviews seems dated.”
With more than one-third of children ages 10 to 17 considered obese, the federal government is looking at ways to make childhood-obesity prevention a priority.
To help Congress with that mission, the GAO examined data from the 2000 and 2006 School Health Policies and Practices Survey and the 2005 and 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, both compiled by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the GAO interviewed officials from four state education agencies, four state high school athletic associations, and 13 schools in California, Illinois, New York, and North Carolina.
Schools tended to offer less physical education time to students in 2006 than in 2000, according to the health survey, but the number of schools making students take P.E. rose at each grade over that time. Fourteen percent of elementary schools offered it three days a week or its instructional equivalent, the GAO found.
While the quantity of physical education classes may have dropped, the quality appeared to be on the rise. More than three-quarters of states required or suggested that schools follow the standards of the National Association of Sport and Physical Education in 2006, compared with only 59 percent in 2000.
Contrary to the decline of P.E., most of the education officials the GAO interviewed suggested that school sports opportunities had generally increased, due in no small part to the addition of sports teams over the preceding few years.
Officials from all four states studied said they had added new sports to their statewide interscholastic-competition schedules in response to increased demand. Some schools said they had recently added lacrosse and badminton.
Increased athletic opportunities for girls also played a factor, according to the report. One official said that only 49 high schools had offered girls’ soccer in his state in 1986, while that number had grown to around 300 as of 2010.
Nationwide, boys still outnumber girls in high school sports, at a ratio of roughly 3-to-2, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But female participation has increased every year since 1988-89.
A majority of officials told the GAO that budget cuts have put a crimp in P.E. and sports, with schools struggling to attract coaches and pay for transportation for road games. Limited facilities also plagued nine of the 13 schools visited.
To keep physical education afloat despite the cuts, Edwin Moses, the chairman of the global Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, based in London, said, “it has to become a matter of sheer will in looking out for the welfare of young people who can’t necessarily look out for themselves.” He spoke on a panel on Capitol Hill at the release of the report.
About one-third of schools had instituted pay-to-play fees to maintain sports, the health survey found, but 86 percent of those schools reported they would waive the fees for students who couldn’t afford them. The GAO noted that some schools were taking advantage of alternative funding sources, such as one that relied on upwards of $60,000 in ticket sales each year.
“The GAO study was a natural offspring of our work over the years to analyze and emphasize the importance of youth sports and how that ties into character development, as well as physical health and well being,” said U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., the founder of the Congressional Caucus on Youth Sports. He and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, requested the report.
While Mr. Caccamo of Up2Us expressed skepticism about some of the findings, because of the time lag, he also expressed appreciation that the federal government had shone a spotlight on the issue.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen them acknowledge the benefits of sports,” he said. “I think they made it abundantly clear that sports have both developmental and academic impacts.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 2012 edition of Education Week as Survey Finds Drop in P.E. Classes, But Increase in Sports