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?