Physical education atrophies in Colo. schools

Colorado’s newly-minted standards for teaching physical education glisten like an oiled-up bodybuilder.

Adopted in December by the Colorado Board of Education, the new standards integrate 21st century concepts of health and wellness into time-tested physical education practices, they promote the creation of individualized physical activity plans and they provide students with the skills to assess their own fitness needs throughout their lifetimes.

They’re hands-down better than the old standards, which hadn’t been revised in 15 years and which were sports-focused rather than health-focused.

There’s just one problem: The standards dictate what is taught. They don’t dictate whether it’s taught.

“They don’t have to meet the standards unless they teach physical education,” said Terry Jones, senior consultant for health and physical education for the Colorado Department of Education. “If a district chooses not to teach P.E., well, that’s a whole different story.”

Increasing numbers of Colorado school districts appear to be foregoing physical education, at both the elementary and secondary levels.

Colorado is one of 10 states that fail to place any requirements on elementary schools to provide physical education instruction. It’s one of 11 states with no middle school physical education requirements, and one of seven states with no high school requirements. And it’s one of just four states – along with Alaska, Oklahoma and Michigan – that have no physical education requirements at any grade level.

Colorado doesn’t require schools to teach math or English either. This is a local-control state, and the only thing Colorado school districts are required by law to teach is ninth-grade civics.

P.E. not tested

But federal standards – i.e., No Child Left Behind – and state standardized tests  – CSAP – do hold local school districts accountable for teaching math, reading and writing. Without mandatory testing and reporting on physical education, however, it remains optional for Colorado school districts.

Hard statistics on just how much physical education is available in each of Colorado’s 178 school districts are difficult to come by. Clayton Ellis, president of the Colorado Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said he’s spent two years trying to compile that information, with limited success.

“There’s such turnover in the districts, it’s hard to collect the data,” he said. “We’ve tried to incorporate some questions about that into the health surveys that the Colorado Department of Education sends out, but there’s only so much you can survey the school districts on because they start to feel overwhelmed.”

As far as he can tell, every district in Colorado does require at least one semester of physical education as a graduation requirement from high school, with 1.0 to 1.5 required P.E. credits being the average around the state. Some also require a semester of health.

But getting a  “credit” for physical education and actually spending a semester exercising are two different things. Many districts waive the physical education requirement for students taking band or ROTC or playing a sport. Yet none of those activities adequately equips a young person with the knowledge needed to sustain a fit and healthy lifestyle, according to Ellis.

“Our goal for physical education should be to put personal trainers out of business,” said Ellis, who teaches physical education at Aurora Central High School. “If high school teachers are training their kids to design their own programs, if they’re making them more health-related, lifelong activity programs rather sports-related programs, then kids wouldn’t have to pay for personal trainers when they become obese after they’ve graduated.”

The lack of focus on physical education isn’t limited to secondary education. Nationwide, it’s estimated that just 3.8 percent of elementary schools provide daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year. Many elementary schools schedule their students for one physical education class a week.

“So they have P.E. 30 times a year,” Ellis said. “They have highly qualified teachers and good programs, but the teachers don’t get to see the kids enough.”

Then they move to middle school, where P.E. is an option that can be replaced by band or choir.

“They could go through their entire middle school years without taking any P.E. at all,” Ellis said. “Then they get to high school and they haven’t developed any skills because they haven’t had any P.E. for years. They’ve lost all the basics of physical education.”

High school P.E. too sports-focused?

Ellis, who was recently honored as the national Physical Education Teacher of the Year by the American Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, said he’s concerned high school P.E. is too sports-focused.

“We’re not getting those kids who aren’t interested in athletics,” he said. “Less than 3 percent of kids go into team sports after they graduate from high school but that’s what we’re teaching them. We should be teaching them more lifelong, health-related fitness activities.”

That’s where Colorado’s new physical education standards could prove useful. They could force P.E. teachers into a curriculum more geared to the needs of 21st century students.

“The biggest change is that we’re now asking students to know and understand how to assess their physical fitness levels, how to do physical activity plans so they can use those skills once they graduate,” said the CDE’s Jones.

“They will develop, with the help of their teachers, a fitness plan to help them move forward in areas where they may need added support. So say they’re low in cardiovascular endurance. They’ll assess that, and come up with a plan to improve their endurance.”

But there’s still the problem of regularly scheduled physical education. The curriculum doesn’t matter if there’s no time to teach it.

And despite all the evidence that physical activity helps students across all academic disciplines – and the fact that most elementary school principals believe recess is absolutely critical – just finding the time to squeeze in any sort of exercise into a crowded school day can be a challenge.

“A lot of districts have reduced their PE requirements, and that’s true for all physical activity,” Jones said. “Recess times have been reduced at some elementaries to one lunchtime recess or even to no recess time at all.”

Legislative ups and downs

Last year, the Colorado legislature considered  a bill to force school districts to require a minimum of 150 minutes of physical activity each week for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. Versions of that bill, introduced by Sen. Chris Romer, passed both the Senate and the House, but died when the chambers could not reconcile the different versions.

No similar legislation has been introduced this year.

At the federal level, however, legislation has been proposed that would require all school districts to report on the quantity and quality of physical education they offer, integrate physical activity and wellness activities throughout the school day, and train teachers and principals to do a better job at promoting physical education.

The bill, known as the FIT Kids Act, amends the No Child Left Behind Act. It was introduced into Congress a year ago by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wisc., Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

The bill has a long list of backers, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, BlueCross BlueShield, the National PTA and even the National Football League. Even so, the bill, originally introduced in 2007, has yet to be heard in committee.

“It would be a huge paradigm shift,” Ellis said, “but we’re taking baby steps. I’m hoping the FIT Kids Act will be approved, just to get schools to start reporting their data. P.E. is still the old dumping ground, and we need to shift that.”


For more information:

To read the new Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards for Colorado Schools, click here here.

To read “A State of Play,” a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study, released last week, on the benefits of recess on elementary school achievement, click here.

To see a state-by-state summary from the Center for Disease Control’s 2006 School Health Policies and Programs Study, click here.