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Senate Bill Wants P.E. Back in Nation's Schools


Today, only one state in the nation requires daily physical education. That statistic, some say, is an indicator of the sorry shape of physical education programs in our schools. Later this month -- National Sports and Physical Fitness Month -- about 100 physical education teachers will meet with their congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., to voice support for an amendment to an education bill that may help put physical education back into schools. Included: Latest poll information and reactions from phys ed organization officials.

School physical education programs in the United States are in sorry shape, many educators say. Over the last decade, physical education has been squeezed out of school by new curriculum requirements and other factors. Today, only one state in the nation requires daily physical education. As the amount of physical activity has been cut back in our nation's schools, the number of seriously overweight children has climbed to its highest rate in 30 years.

About 100 physical education teachers from throughout the nation plan to meet with congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., on May 15 to support an amendment to the Elementary Secondary School Act that may help put physical education back into schools.



The PEP (Physical Education for Progress) Act is to be offered in May as an amendment by Senator Ted Stevens (R -- Alaska), who introduced the bill last year. The proposal will provide $400 million in grants over five years for local school districts to develop minimum weekly and daily physical education programs, fund equipment, and support curriculum development and training. The act currently has 19 cosponsors.

Stevens was horrified to learn that only one state required physical education daily, said Connie Godwin, the senator's press secretary. The number of daily physical education classes drops most for high school students. According to a Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, high school enrollment in physical education dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 27 percent in 1997. Of those who do still attend a high school gym class, fewer are spending time being active for at least 20 minutes.

In addition, 13.6 percent of children are obese, up from about 5 percent 30 years ago, according to Promoting Lifelong Physical Activity, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Godwin explained that those statistics propelled Stevens to introduce the bill.

An advocate of physical education, the 76-year-old senator practices what he preaches. He plays tennis three times per week and exercises daily. "Senator Stevens is a great believer that you must have physical education in your schools to provide a well-rounded education," Godwin said.


The vast majority of adults and teens agree with Stevens that physical education should be mandatory in schools, according to a national poll by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE), a nonprofit organization. Opinion Research Corporation International of Princeton, New Jersey, conducted the phone poll of 1,107 adults and 500 teens ages 12 to 17 in February 2000.

"We are seeing an erosion of physical education nationally at the high school and at the elementary level because we are adding other academic requirements, such as computers and art," said Marybell Avery, NASPE president and curriculum specialist for health and physical education for the public schools of Lincoln, Nebraska.

As added curriculum requirements cram an already crowded school day, the decision educators must ask is what will be cut, Avery explained. The solution is to find ways to offer physical activity not only during the school day but also outside the school day. Before- and after-school programs that include even 15 minutes a day offer health benefits, she said.

"I believe the reason we lost physical education is because we, as educators, couldn't define what a quality physical education was," said Avery. That changed when the NASPE developed national standards for physical education.



The focus of physical education is more than kickball on the playground, where only one child is active and the rest watch, Avery said. The goal of physical education is to level the playing field, so those students not athletically inclined will find an activity they can enjoy, and therefore, continue throughout their life, Avery added.

Focusing only on the most talented athletes leaves out most children, she said; physical education is for all kids with different ranges of ability, which is why it must introduce students to a wide range of activities.

According to Avery, the purpose of physical education is to educate children to live a healthier lifestyle, which includes regular physical activity. "High school physical education curriculum has to make it more of an adult health club atmosphere. We've got to get the kids interested by offering them choices," she said.

Avery mentioned inline skating and fencing as examples of nontraditional physical education activities. Schools have to offer those kinds of activities that really get kids excited so it becomes part of their lifestyle, she said.





Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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