ASCD Whole Child Bloggers

Are You Making the Most of Physical Education in Your School?

Post submitted by Monica A.F. Lounsbery, PhD, and Thomas L. McKenzie, PhD. Lounsbery is a professor and director of the Physical Activity Policy Research Program, Department of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences, at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. McKenzie is a former school physical education and health teacher, coach, and administrator. He is emeritus professor of exercise and nutritional sciences at San Diego State University and has authored or co-authored over 200 papers and developed numerous assessment and curricular materials.

Physical education (PE) is one of the few settings where children, particularly those from socioeconomically disadvantaged families, can accrue substantial amounts of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and learn important generalizable movement and behavioral skills to help them lead a physically active lifestyle.

Since the No Child Left Behind Act has been in place, most school policymakers recognize that there have been dramatic decreases in the amount of PE time students are provided per week. However, many school principals probably don't disclose that the remaining PE time is often compromised.

Research has shown that scheduled PE is cancelled more than 20 percent of the time and that the actual lesson duration is much less than the scheduled time. We recently conducted a national study to understand more about PE and its delivery in schools from the perspective of the principal and the PE teacher. Principal and PE teacher pairs from 154 schools from 34 states completed questionnaires. Our study showed that PE, as a curricular area, is almost never evaluated, yet a significant proportion of principals reported that they were highly satisfied with their PE program.

Another important finding was that a majority of principals didn't realize that their schools weren't using a specific PE curriculum. One major challenge with this is that many PE programs do not systematically emphasize the public health goal of promoting and providing physical activity. From this study we also learned that many PE teachers and principals didn't realize that evidence-based physical education programs have been developed and are recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (PDF) and the Partnership for Prevention (PDF).

Evidence-based PE programs have been developed through several large-scale school health and physical activity studies. These were rigorously designed with interventions that were multifaceted and included the development and evaluation of health-optimizing PE programs (e.g., SPARK, CATCH, Planet Health). Compared to PE in control schools, moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in an intervention school increased by as much as 18 percent, without increasing the frequency or duration of lessons. These studies produced compelling evidence that these intervention PE programs increased physical activity and can contribute to public health goals more than regular PE programs.

While evidence-based physical education programs exist, they have not been widely adopted by schools even though their implementation has been shown to be feasible and effective. Our study suggested that one reason for the lack of school adoption of evidence-based physical education programs is that principals and other school policymakers don't often receive information on how to optimize their physical education programs. Hence, we were funded by Active Living Research to develop and disseminate this four-minute video, "Making the Most of Physical Education:"

The video was designed for school administrators, board members, teachers, parents, and others interested in quality physical education. Abbreviated research findings inform viewers about characteristics of quality physical education and barriers to its delivery and the relationship between physical education and academic achievement. A call to action is provided. Check the video out and let us know how you are making the most of physical education at your school.

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