Our Big Problem: P.E. being rethought in light of new goals for health
by Erich Hilkert
Jul 30, 2012 | 7740 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
(Anniston Star illustration by Bran Strickland)
(Anniston Star illustration by Bran Strickland)
Editor's note: This story has been modified from its original version to clarify the physical education requirements for high school students.

Andrew Harris likes plenty of physical activities, but there’s one he hates the way most kids hate spinach.

“Every time someone says ‘dodgeball,’ I say ‘be quiet.’” he said.

The 9-year-old loves football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and hunting and fishing, but getting hit in the face, he said, while playing dodgeball in his Oxford Elementary School physical education class soured his enjoyment of the activity.

Being hit with a little red ball in a game may be a common childhood experience, but does it help a kid get more physically fit? For decades, few people bothered to even ask the question. Now a group of Alabama educators is taking a close look at the way Alabama teaches phys ed, with an eye toward what works and what doesn’t.

According to Nancy Ray, physical education and health specialist for the Alabama Department of Education, she and others involved in a PE task force have worked hard to develop the state’s first-ever comprehensive physical education guide for grades K-12. The Alabama Physical Fitness Assessment is based on recent data and tests students on individual performances, while the previous model, the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, was based on 1984 data and tested students based on how their performance compared with their peers.

The Alabama Fitness Assessment will be implemented in public schools across the state in the upcoming school year. The assessment uses exercises to target aerobic cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, abdominal strength, flexibility and body mass index. The goal is to help students improve overall health and fitness.

“It defines what quality PE should look like in the school systems,” Ray said.

No one can accuse Alabamians of disliking sports — especially football. But there’s growing evidence that something in the state’s current PE curriculum isn’t working.

A 2011 Centers for Disease Control study showed that Alabama had the highest proportion of obese high school students in the nation. Among high school students in Alabama, 17 percent are obese. Nationwide, only about 13 percent of students are considered obese.

In one respect, Alabama has higher PE standards than many other states; students in grades K-8 are required to have PE 30 minutes daily.

The requirements aren't nearly as stringent for Alabama students at the high school level, however. According to the CDC, about 46 percent of Alabama high school students attend PE one or more days in an average school week. Only 35 percent attend PE all five days in the average school week. Meanwhile, 41 percent of Alabama high school students watched television three or more hours per day on an average school day.

Robin Brothers, fitness director of the Anniston Aquatic and Fitness Center, doesn’t think kids currently get enough physical activity.

“When I grew up, we played outside and we rode bicycles and all that and children just don’t do that now. They just tend to sit.”

The CDC listed “more PE and physical activity programs” as one of several solutions to aid in lowering obesity levels.

Penny Edwards, Alabama relationship manager of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, provides support and resources to Alabama schools that participate in the Healthy Schools Program. Edwards said schools have motivation to comply with state mandates for PE.

“The school can face a potential penalty if they’re not following the mandate,” Edwards said. However, the only way such a penalty would be imposed is if the infraction is reported to the Alabama Department of Education.

Laurie Eldridge-Auffant, health behavior specialist for the Alabama Department of Public Health, was part of the task force that created the new health curriculum.

“There’s still a lot of room for improvement in PE programs,” Eldridge-Auffant said earlier this month. “We went in to try to find ways to improve the quality of PE. The project that we worked on is a really good start.”

Dewayne Thigpen, a PE teacher at Anniston Middle School, is optimistic about the new Alabama Fitness Assessment.

“For the most part, I think it’s a good change because it will integrate technology into physical education,” Thigpen said. “Some of the stuff we did may have been outdated.”

A problem arises, however, when physical education classes don’t really get kids active.

“Some physical education classes are not all that active and we know that because we study them using direct observation procedures,” said Paul Rosengard, director of Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids, more commonly known as SPARK. The nonprofit organization provides cost-effective, evidence-based PE programs to schools in all 50 states, including Alabama, in a concerted effort to combat childhood obesity.

The SPARK program uses highly modified sports to promote greater physical activity.

“Physical education classes need to be active,” Rosengard said. “Let’s make sure we put the ‘physical’ back in physical education.”

SPARK takes traditional sports and modifies them to include fewer rules, making them easier to play. So, students can start physical activity quicker and typically, they enjoy it more.

Academic boost

Kevion Nolan, a rising eighth-grader at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic School, said he enjoys his PE class.

“It’s a period where we don’t have to do work and I like being active,” James said.

Kids may not be the only people who see PE as a break from academic work. Anti-obesity advocates have long complained that the increased focus on academic testing has crowded out PE in favor of more classroom time. But research suggests PE benefits students in academics, too. Rosengard co-authored a published study looking at more than 750 kids in third, fourth and fifth grades.

“We followed them for several years,” Rosengard said. “If kids have more time in physical education, they do as well or they do better on their standardized test scores.”

Despite the fact that the SPARK PE kids spent 300 percent more time for PE—about an hour per week out of the classroom—they scored better on three test scores, performed the same on four test scores and did slightly worse on one test score.

Peter Cribb, director of Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH), said schools have made progress, but much work is still needed.

“We have significant decreases in childhood obesity, but it’s not magic,” Cribb said. “It’s going to take time.”
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