Sean Slade

PE Criticism and Responses

This year has seen a lot of debate, scrutiny, and op-eds on and around education. And physical education (PE) has not been absent from this debate. More often than not, it has been those education leaders or commentators who believe that we need to increase our emphasis on standardized testing who have led the criticism of PE, physical activity (PA), and even recess.

For example, Jay Mathews, an educational journalist from The Washington Post, wrote an article in December 2009 denouncing the worth of PE:

The bill's physical education requirements are its worst part—a nifty-sounding reform that many of the District's best principals and teachers will declare one of the dumbest ideas they ever heard.

At the moment, D.C. students from kindergarten through 8th grade have two P.E. periods a week of 45 minutes each. High-schoolers need just a semester and a half of a similar P.E. regime to graduate. The new bill would require every public school student in kindergarten through 5th grade to have 150 minutes of P.E. (30 minutes a day). Sixth- through 8th-graders would be required to take 225 minutes (45 a day).

Why is this a bad idea? Because, as Mathews puts it, it would reduce time—or rather not allow more time to be dedicated—for academics, saying "I know we haven't finished that chapter yet, kids, but hey, it's time for push-ups." Previously, Mathews had followed a similar vein regarding recess where he stated that he "realize[s] most people don't know how poisonous recess can be for urban schools with severe academic needs...."

This year Joel Klein, the former chancellor of New York City's public schools, appeared on the The View. When the conversation turned to the issue of merit pay for teachers, he said, "I have to pay math teachers and science teachers the same as I pay my physical education teachers," a statement that, in context, suggested that math and science teachers should earn more than PE teachers.

Many education leaders spoke out against Klein's comments and in defense of PE and PA, including Paul Roetert, CEO of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance:

We believe, and scientific research supports, that educating the "whole child" is vital to a child's overall academic success. Studies have shown that regular physical activity improves academic performance. The solution to improving our nation's public education system is not to pit one teacher against another by claiming that one is more important than the other, and should thus earn more. The solution is creating an environment that motivates all teachers to be the best they can be, that honors and rewards our outstanding teachers, that improves the status of the teaching profession, and that acknowledges that academic success is built from achievement in all subjects, including physical education.

Charles Basch, a guest on this month's Whole Child Podcast on PE, Recess, and Beyond: The Implications of Movement, outlines many of the beneficial links of PA and health to academic achievement in his outstanding publication Healthier Students Are Better Learners:

If children can't see well, if their eyes do not integrate properly with their brain and motor systems, they will have difficulty acquiring the basic and essential academic skills associated with reading, writing, spelling, and mathematics. If their ability to concentrate, use memory, and make decisions is impeded by ill-nourishment or sedentary lifestyle, if they are distracted by negative feelings, it will be more difficult for them to learn and succeed in school. If their relationships at school with peers and teachers are negative, they will be less likely to be connected with and engaged in school, and therefore less motivated and able to learn. If they are not in school, because of uncontrolled asthma or because they are afraid to travel to or from school, they will miss teaching and learning opportunities. If they drop out, perhaps because they are failing or faltering; or because they are socialized to believe that, even if they complete school, there will be no better opportunities; or because they associate with peers who do not value school; or because they become pregnant and there are no resources in place that enable them to complete school while pregnant and after they have a newborn, it is not likely that they can succeed. If they cannot focus attention and succeed socially, it is unlikely that they will succeed academically. (p. 77)

And, as Basch stated on the podcast, "If you see the goal of schools as trying to help young people grow and develop as healthy people, as well as educated people, then paying attention to physical activity as well as other dimensions of health is an important part of that overall development."

So why do we need PE, PA, and even recess? Is it just about giving students a break from academics? Is it just about developing fitter kids who can then do better on standardized testing? Or are PE and PA key to developing us as whole individuals—socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically as well as cognitively?

Comments (8)

PE Criticism and Responses « Whole Child Blog R

December 22, 2010

[...] PE Criticism and Responses « Whole Child Blog – Whole Child Education. [...]

Rose Balan

December 22, 2010

Recent legislation in BC mandates that all elementary classes have 30 minutes of Daily Physical Activity (DPA)in addition to recess time. Like other teachers I wonder where the time will come from to allow DPA and what core areas will suffer by their reduced time. If we look at the issue from a research-based perspective our fears should be put to rest. Exercise benefits the whole child.

Direct benefit of physical activity to brain development, nerve cell development, and increased learning has been found.Ratey (2008)claimed that exercise enhances learning on three levels: (1)alertness, attention, and motivation are improved; (2)nerve cells are encoraged to bind to each other and do so with greater efficiency; and (3)development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus is encouraged. Exercise increases spatial learning and memory (Grace, Hescham,Kellaway, Bugarith, & Russell, 2009).

Chidren develop socially and emotionally through games and creative movement. Through physical activity social skills, problem solving, and cooperation are enhanced (Gilbert, 2002). Depression is eased (Grace et al., 2009). Recess provides a forum in which students can negotiate, take turns, develop responsibility, and resolve conflicts. (Jarrett & Waite-Stupiansky, 2009).

Benefits of excercise to health are many. Boreham and Riddoch (2001) stated that regular physical activity improves health in general. Cardio-vascular health is improved, lean muscle mass is increased, and bone denwity is heightened (Boreham & Riddoch). A carryover of childhood health to adulthood results (Boreham & Riddoch). Childhood obesity contributes to numerous health problems while a healthy active lifestyle in childhood contributes to a healthy active lifestile in adulthood (Boreham & Riddoch).

Despite the many advantages of physical activity, the reality is that childhood obesity is on the increase 9boreham & Riddoch, 2001). Children spend an increasing amount of time on sedentary activities,including watching TV, playing video games, or using the computer. Societal changes have resulted in a decrease in the number of children who walk or bike to school, or engage in organized sports. Given the decrease in activity outside of school, it is important that a paradigm shift occurs in our thinking. PE courses and recess must be viewed as a vital part of educational programming and be recognized as being an essential component of educational programming.

Boreham, C.,& Riddoch, C. (2001). The physial activity, fitness, and health of children. Journal of Sports Sciences,(19),915-929. Retrieved December 22, 2010 from Physical Activity fitness and health of children.pdf
Gilbert, Anne Green.  2002. Teaching the three Rs through movement experiences, Bethesda, MD: National Dance Education Organization.
Grace, L., Hescham, S., Kellaway, L., Bugarith, K., & Russell, V.. (2009). Effect of exercise on learning and memory in a rat model of developmental stress. Metabolic Brain Disease, 24(4), 643-57.  Retrieved December 22, 2010, from ProQuest Health and Medical Complete. (Document ID: 1913327091).
Jarrett, O., & Waite-Stupiansky, S.. (2009). Recess-It’s Indispensable! YC Young Children, 64(5), 66-69.  Retrieved December 22, 2010, from ProQuest Education Journals. (Document ID: 1859551541).
Ratey, J.J. (2008). SPARK:The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.New York: Little, Brown, and Company.

Sean Slade

December 22, 2010

Thanks for the comment Rose. Regarding the issue of time for PE/PA which you mention the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE)along with ASCD and other key organizations will soon be launching ‘Let’s Move in School’ which besides other things will highlight how how physical activity can take place outside of PE and across the whole school.

Rose Balan

December 24, 2010

Thanks Sean. I am all for integrating movement across the subject areas. For me in my first grade classroom, that is relatively easy to do. In the higher grades integrating PA becomes more of a challenge, especially when a need exists for more time to be spent on the core subject areas. I look forward to “Let’s Move in School”.

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December 27, 2010

ho that looking forward


December 28, 2010

Emphasize the “whole child” and you’d be a fool to reduce or eliminate physical education.  It’s been sugar-coated for far too long.  As a parent, if my child was overweight or obese, I’d like to be informed and given information on what the school will do to educate my child as to how to remedy the situation.  It is important and not enough emphasis is placed on PE.

Michael Rulon

December 28, 2010

As a former Health and Physical Education teacher, I obviously agree with the perspective that physical activity is not only desirable but necessary in education our children. However, the truth is if all PE classes in our schools were high quality in the learning opportunities they provide the argument to “sell” Physical Education would be much easier.
PE teachers need to earn the same pay as any teacher, as long as they are held to the same responsibilities of all teachers.
When we look at the elements of high quality teaching, and highly qualified teachers we need to hold all schools to the same high standards.
If we expect to move our schools into 21st century learning centers we must transform all of our content, and we must demand student learning reflect the high quality teaching that was delivered inside and outside of the classroom

Francesca Zavacky

December 28, 2010

For educators wishing to integrate physical activity into various times during the school day, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) has developed a webpage, Integrating Physical Activity Into the Complete School Day. The web page can be accessed at and contains links to free resources for many potential opportunities-physical activity breaks, before and after school programs, recess, walking and biking to school, and employee wellness programs. There is even a section with supportive resources for quality physical education.Please visit this webpage for some highly pertinent and usable resources that are free.

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