Increased pressure to perform on academic tests is forcing state schools to cut physical education classes

Michelle Obama runs with school children on the South Lawn on May 25.
REUTERS/Jim Young
Michelle Obama runs with school children on the South Lawn on May 25.

WASHINGTON — After multiple layoffs, 30-year-old physical education teacher Ryan Weber has had a front-row seat in watching the decline of physical education in Minnesota schools.

Weber is out of work again as of today after finishing a short-term stint in an Anoka summer program for special needs students

“Only 10 of the 25 people I graduated from college in physical education with are doing anything related to their degree because they can’t find jobs, kept getting cut and just can’t do it anymore,” Weber said. 

Education providers are under increasing pressure to measure up on standardized tests, which means that many schools are trading school day hours for academics over physical education to ensure they will meet requirements to lock in funding. 

It’s a trend that experts say threatens to undermine first lady Michelle Obama’s central initiative: a campaign aimed at improving the health of America’s youth, in part by expanding physical education and extracurricular activities.

As a result of repeated cuts in physical education across the state, teachers like Weber are looking for work while the waistlines of Minnesota students only get bigger.

“Over the last 10 years, schools have been under intense academic pressure to add more time in their school day for reading and math, and there is only so much time in the school day; time is finite,” said Charlie Kyte, executive director of Minnesota Association of School Administrators. “Physical education is what has been squeezed.”

Focus on physical ed
Research shows that physical education and activity in school is not only helpful in decreasing obesity and improving health but also plays a key role in helping kids focus in class.

“Physical education is absolutely imperative to the ability to learn,” said John Fitzgerald, a fellow at Minnesota2020, a think tank focusing on public policy. “If you make them [kids] sit in a chair for eight hours a day, they aren’t going to learn.”

A recent surgeon general’s report (PDF) that found nearly half of America’s kids ages 12 to 21 do not get enough physical activity, thus hampering their ability to learn.

“The truth is that lots of kids just aren’t getting enough healthy foods and they’re not getting enough exercise,” said Obama at a “Let’s Move!” Baseball Clinic Tuesday in Baltimore. 

The first lady’s “Let’s Move!” campaign focuses on increasing physical activity in children, improving nutrition and the availability of healthy foods in schools.

Michelle Obama announces the "Let's Move" initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 20.
REUTERS/Joe Giza
Michelle Obama announces the “Let’s Move” initiative in Baltimore, Maryland, on July 20.

Obama’s initiative has been met with widespread support from celebrity chefs and professional athletes promoting physical activity and nutrition for kids.

But publicity and setting these concerns as a national priority may not be enough to overcome the structural constraints of the education framework.  

Challenges to implementation
The problem, educators say, is that federal No Child Left Behind standards only judge a school’s performance based on annual standardized tests. Things that aren’t on the test, like physical fitness, can be left behind.

Supporters of the federal standards argue that it holds schools accountable to federal guidelines and requires schools to produce results on standardized tests to secure funding. And the data back up that claim, as test scores have largely risen since No Child Left Behind was implemented.

But critics point out that NCLB forces schools to choose between devoting school hours to academics or physical education.

Elementary schools nationwide, for example, now average just 40 minutes a day for physical education and recess combined. Only a third of high-schoolers, said “Let’s Move!” officials, now get enough physical activity.

“They asked us to do two things: see to it that our kids are eating more nutritious foods in school and that schools have more physical education and activity,” said Kyte. “But they haven’t taken one iota off of us for kids to do better in math.”

Public schools rely heavily on state funding, and it’s no mystery that major budget crises in states across the nation are putting the heat on educators. Minnesota school districts across the state cut $122 million for the 2008-09 school year. School aid has been cut by about 4 percent since 2003, and roughly 1,000 teachers are expected to be laid off by the end of this year, according to Minnesota2020.

Minnesota state law outlines requirements (PDF) for physical education in schools but does not mandate a specific state curriculum (PDF) or a required student-to-teacher ratio for physical education classes (PDF).

“It isn’t uncommon to see an elementary physical education class with 30 or more students or a middle or high school physical education class with 40 or more students,” said LeMoyne Corgard, a physical education teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. “Just because we have the largest real estate in the building doesn’t mean we should have the biggest class size.”

In addition, the current economic downturn is limiting the funds families have to spend on extracurricular activities.

“People say kids’ sports are better than ever and there are lots of sporting opportunities, which is fine for the people that can afford those opportunities,” Corgard said. “But people aren’t participating in kids’ sports like Little League because they can’t pay for it.”

Potential bridges to cross the activity gap
The first lady has said her goal is for kids to get 60 minutes of active play each day.

To reach that goal, she has proposed a fund to help schools encourage activity by building more safe places for play, a fund targeted for inclusion in the next education bill, scheduled to come up later this year or next.

She would also expand such current efforts at encouraging physical education as the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, and Physical Fitness Council.

Rep. John Kline, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, says he wants local districts to have more flexibility on standards in the next education bill.

“Rep. Kline believes the best way to support a well-rounded education – including physical education, art, and music with science, reading, mathematics, and other priorities – is to maintain local control,” said Alexa Marrero, committee spokeswoman for the 2nd District Republican.

“It is not the federal government, but rather parents, teachers, superintendents, and school boards who are in the best position to set priorities for their schools.”

Corgard, who has been teaching for more than 30 years, emphasized getting back to “educating the whole student,” which means academics and physical education, not one or the other.  With only one state (Illinois) still requiring daily physical education, it is clear that a de-emphasis on physical education has occurred over the years. 

“We emphasize the academic and de-emphasize the physical and psycho-social,” Corgard said. “When kids don’t have recess and physical education, they don’t get the chance to play games, work out differences with others. This learning is carried over into the classroom.”

“We don’t take math or social studies away from kids or make it an elective when we know it’s a part of a complete education,” Corgard said. “Why would we make physical education a choice when we know it’s good for them?”

Lauren Knobbe is an intern in MinnPost’s D.C. Bureau.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 07/29/2010 - 11:10 am.

    “But critics point out that NCLB forces schools to choose between devoting school hours to academics or physical education.”

    Correction: NCLB forces schools to choose between devoting school hours to academics or physical education, AND preparing to take, and taking, standardized tests. Our daughter has suffered both the absence of in-school physical activity and the significant compression of math curriculum (just one week to cover quadratic equations!) due to standardized testing mandates. Since standardized testing tests knowledge, not learning, it requires an interruption of school learning activity.

  2. Submitted by Tad Simons on 07/29/2010 - 12:41 pm.

    The rise in childhood obesity nationwide is the result of three concurrent cultural factors: 1) The lack of daily physical education in schools, particularly high school, 2) the widespread availability and consumption of cheap, processed foodstuffs, and the 3) the rise of video games as the entertainment of choice for kids, especially boys. One also has to wonder how many kids diagnosed with ADD/ADHD really just want to run, jump, and play a little rather than sit at a desk all day. Only one state in the country—Illinois—now requires daily physical education in its schools. That says it all.

  3. Submitted by Simon Wiltshire on 07/29/2010 - 02:52 pm.

    Why don’t we lengthen the school day or year? It seems to me we have fewer days actually AT SCHOOL than most other developed nations. Can we stop pretending that the kids need to be out of school for 3 months during the summer – most of them DON’T work on the farm, and those that do probably don’t need the PhyEd! By the time you take into account all of the various days off the kids get during the year, they’re in school for, what, 180 days maximum? Not sure how that means we are “forced to choose” between PhyEd and Tests. I think we have made that choice with our school structure, haven’t we?

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 07/29/2010 - 03:35 pm.

    It seems NCLB has become something of a buzzword. We had standardized testing before NCLB, and we’ll have it if NCLS is repealed. Maybe we’ll have less, but we’ll have it. I’ll narrow it down and say my concern isn’t standardized testing so much as high stakes testing. Having a student’s ability to graduate based on one test is ridiculous. Tying funding to testing success is insane when the schools with the fewest resources are likely to have the lowest scores. Tossing out NCLB just obscures the real issue we need to rethink.

  5. Submitted by David Willard on 07/29/2010 - 11:23 pm.

    I think the teacher’s union will balk at the expanding school year idea. Also, a lot of the time, in my experience with three children in a western burb… Hopkins… when they are in school, a lot of the time near the end of the year seems to be taken up by watching movies. I think parents have to do some more stuff, like raising their children. Don’t think the government can help that. Maybe the Democratic brain wizards can come up with a new, expansive idea.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/02/2010 - 12:18 pm.

    “Having a student’s ability to graduate based on one test is ridiculous.”

    Right; because everyone knows that in real life our ability to participate in anything like getting a job, driving a car, practicing a licensed profession or getting into college never hinges on anything as frivolous as a test.

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