At least 29 percent of schoolchildren do not attend gym classes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Youth Survey. This is up 4 percent from four years ago. And the trend is not likely to stop as long as standardized tests are the sole means of rating schools, say physical-education advocates.
What's more, they say, many schools lack fundamental equipment and are not hiring teachers trained to implement quality programs.
A spate of recent publicity does suggest that dodgeball is making a comeback.
"But dodgeball is not the kind of thing that promotes physical activity for a lifetime," says Virginia Polytechnic Institute physical-education professor George Graham. "I'm glad it's back, but it can't be the only thing going on in physical education. You might teach somebody to play dodgeball or baseball, but it doesn't teach them to become physically active for a lifetime. If you learn to read, you read for a lifetime. If you learn math, you learn math for a lifetime. The same should be true for physical education."
The logic that somehow adding an hour a day of academic studies to the curriculum will make a difference in test scores turns out to be a theory that holds little merit, Graham claims. A recent Virginia Tech study indicates there is no relationship between the amount of time devoted to art, music and physical education and scores on Virginia's statewide standards-of-learning test.
The conclusion? "Eliminating physical education may not lead to better test scores and will deprive youngsters of an important part of their overall education," says Graham, an author of the study.
"Parents and school administrators close their eyes and turn their backs," Graham says. "Principals know what good quality P.E. is, but they don't care about the total child. They care only about the child's head. Principals know they are judged on test scores, but is that ultimately in the best interest of youngsters? There is more to life than just doing well in academics."
In the last three decades the amount of time allocated in school for physical education has gone from an hour a day to maybe twice a week for 30 minutes. Others simply dropped P.E. During this span, obesity among children has become pandemic. Since 1966, there has been a 54 percent increase in obesity among children ages 6 to 11, while obesity among high-school students who exercise three times per week declined from 61 percent to 16 percent.
Similarly, the CDC and the Journal of Pediatrics report the following:
Anne Flannery, executive director for PE4Life, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington that promotes high-quality physical-education programs, says P.E. classes used to emphasize only team sports with limited lifetime applications because children often stopped engaging in sports once they reached 18.
The new method stresses physical conditioning, movement, body awareness, hand and motion skills, teamwork, sportsmanship and the confidence to try new activities, as well as competitive sports. For example, she says, rock climbing might be incorporated in a class or, instead of criticizing students about the way they run, they would be praised for running.
Flannery balks at the idea that the rise of youth sports around the nation is an adequate replacement for P.E. classes: "Look, many children are not even in these leagues, and physical-education class is the only thing for a lot of them. You also have to realize they will grow up to be fans and maybe even coaches. All the unsportsmanship we see today, I think, can be traced back to the fact that parents, when they were young, were not exposed to proper instruction in sport. They haven't been taught sportsmanship, fair play, healthy competition."
Change has been difficult, she admits. Strapped by financial problems, PE4Life lobbied Congress to pass the Physical Education for Progress Act, which allocated about $5 million in federal grants to school districts. Yet many schools are not on board.
"We're not getting many changes," she says. "Recess is being eliminated. Recess! It's nuts! All the research shows that for brain development kids need to exercise. The attitude is we need to do more serious things than P.E. That's exactly the wrong attitude to take when it comes to children and learning."
Welcome to what Sports Illustrated calls, "the Twinkie-eating, TV-watching, video-game-playing younger generation" in which even participation in youth sports is on the decline. Not exactly what Ben Franklin had in mind when he called for schools to have provisions for running, leaping, wrestling and swimming.
By the 1800s research began linking physical inactivity with public-health concerns, but it took another century before physical exercise became a national priority under President Dwight Eisenhower. He created the Presidential Council on Physical Fitness and Sports in response to a study showing poor muscle strength among students.
The council worked out of the White House until President George Bush moved it to the Department of Health and Human Services, which critics say helped de-emphasize physical education as a national priority and put the presidential fitness test on the back burner in schools.
"I would like to see it come back to prominence and put the council back in the White House," Flannery says. "We're working hard to get the whole issue in front of [President George W.] Bush. We think he will be supportive of this because he says education and health care are his top priorities. This is the best health care for children."
Meanwhile, some 50 years later, America's youth may be in worse shape than they were when Eisenhower set out to improve student fitness. Military recruits are dropping out because they can't handle the physical requirements, Flannery notes. "Wait another 10 years and see how bad it gets."
No longer is every school doing the presidential fitness test, and many that do give it are finding students have difficulty passing. In California, about 79 percent of the students recently failed the fitness test.
"Lots of teachers don't like it," Graham says. "Once a year you have public humiliation. It doesn't encourage those who are not naturally gifted athletes. Remember P.E. class? Kids hated that mile run. Now it could be done in a way that you build up to it."
But 49 states no longer have a daily requirement for physical education. Illinois is the lone exception, and it is paying dividends for schools there.
In Naperville, an upper-middle-class community 35 miles west of Chicago, the fear among some was that so much attention was being paid to physical education that test scores would drop. The concern appears to have been misdirected. In 1999, the school district competed in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study with 38 countries and 14 school jurisdictions in the United States. Naperville scored the highest in the United States on both math- and science-achievement tests and highest overall in the world in science.
Phil Lawler, coordinator of Naperville's K-12 physical-education program, says: "Daily physical education certainly was a positive factor. Brain researchers say physical activity is fertilization for the brain. If you want to classify it, it is the Miracle Grow."
Lawler's program is adjusted to the individual and helps develop self-esteem among those who are not athletically gifted. For example, when individuals participate in the presidential fitness program they compete against themselves, with performance measured against what they should be able to accomplish with their body weight and height rather than strictly competing against their peers.
While the program may indeed provide a protocol for the future, school administrators remain reluctant to wholeheartedly support such endeavors financially. Lawler operates on an annual $1,000 budget for 1,000 kids, with additional finances provided by parents and civic organizations.
Barbara Kelly, a physical-education teacher for K-3 in Bangor, Maine, is chairwoman of the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards board of directors. She says school administrators did not have a quality P.E. program when they were children, so they are unwilling to put money behind good programs now.
What they fail to understand is something rather basic, she says: "If we do our jobs right people live longer because they are physically fit. If we do our jobs poorly, we die."
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