Losing Touch With Physical Education

While obesity becomes a mounting concern, phys-ed programs have been marginalized in K-12 systems

By Jessica A. Skolnikoff and Robert P. Engvall/School Administrator, August 2015

parachuteImagine that you are a physical education teacher. You’ve prepared a lesson plan for a given number of students and grouped them accordingly. When class time arrives, you are faced with several student absences. The excuses range from a dentist appointment to the need to make up missed work in another class. Suddenly, you’re forced to scrap your original lesson plan and come up with a new plan on the fly.

The physical education teachers we interviewed for our recent study on the role of physical education in K-12 schooling say parents and other educators communicate to children through these scheduling preferences that physical education does not matter. In effect, phys-ed is marginalized as a subject matter.

If the purpose of public education is to prepare students for life, then there must be more to school than reading, writing and arithmetic. The benefits of teaching children about the risks of drug and alcohol use are widely acknowledged, and so it should be considered equally important to teach the value of lifelong physical activity and heathy eating.

Obesity and the sedentary lifestyle that contributes to it have become a national concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office reports that instruction time for phys-ed decreased from 2000 to 2006.

How children develop attitudes and habits related to physical activity is a function of various genetic, behavioral and environmental factors. While school administrators can’t address genetic factors that make some children more susceptible to obesity than others, they can play a role in addressing the behavioral and environmental factors. If schools are to be the front line in addressing “real world” needs such as preparing students to enter the workforce, then they also must teach students to make better lifestyle choices, in turn contributing to a healthier workforce.

One area for school administrators to consider is the widening gap between children with athletic skills and their access to play as compared to those with little ability or access. Coupled with the ever-growing external pressures upon public school systems to meet performance objectives in subjects where students are tested, there is increasing pressure to eliminate time for physical activity. Where does this leave learning physical activity as a lifelong habit? Are we teaching our youth that only competitive athletes need physical activity, or that participating in sports purely for enjoyment is a poor and unproductive use of one’s time? The gap is widening among these young people and that carries serious implications for lifelong health.

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  Athletic Capital
and Why It Matters

Social Standing

In our book Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes, and Helicopter Parents: The Productivity of Play, we see a timeliness to addressing the connections between “athletic capital” (see related story, page 38) and the marginalization of physical education. School leaders must face the reality that sports and phys-ed improve the standing of some students, just as they can diminish the standing of others. Perhaps sports and athletic capital represent much of the larger picture for middle and high school students — that “popularity” can be based, somewhat, on the accumulation of capital, whether that capital is economic, academic, social, athletic or, in some cases, a combination of all four.

Athletic capital parallels academic capital insofar as coaches and physical education teachers often find that student attitudes reflect their levels of success in the course. If your school has a math club, the participating students, who possess great skills in math, like the subject and see its usefulness and application. Students who are not in the math club, some of whom struggle mightily in the subject, may rationalize their lack of ability in math and marginalize those who are as “geeks” or “nerds.”

Similarly, students who haven’t experienced athletic success might diminish those who have. “Those dumb jocks, I wouldn’t want to hang out with them anyway,” they might think. School leaders and faculty who recognize these rationalizations in their students and do their best to discourage those who “give up” academically should feel a similar need to discourage those who might give up athletically or physically. Many teachers we interviewed suggested parents are complicit in allowing students to opt out of phys-ed and physical activity. “They aren’t going to use that anyway,” they claim. It’s not unlike those coping with math phobia, who might believe they do not need algebra or trigonometry to lead a successful life.

A major inconsistency exists between the societal message placing importance on health, physical fitness and nutrition and the message sent in our middle and high schools in which physical education instruction has been marginalized. The problem also lies in the ever-widening gap between the pedestal upon which we place our athletes and the place where we relegate those who struggle athletically.

The hyper-emphasis on sports outside the realm of phys-ed works to increase this gap and creates more distance between those who can perform at a high level athletically and those who cannot. Serious athletes in interscholastic competition face pressure to perform well and compete for scholarships, public acclaim and status among peers, while those who aren’t athletic lambast the “dumb jocks” or detach themselves from physical activity altogether.

Teen Attitudes

Some who question the value of phys-ed come from within K-12 education. Two of the three physical educators we interviewed at a suburban middle school in Ohio felt their subject matter to be marginalized to the extent they believed their school leaders would be comfortable further reducing the time and attention devoted to phys-ed.

The change that occurs when a student no longer wants to learn a subject is seen in an interview we conducted with Joe, a middle school phys-ed teacher and sports team coach who formerly was a classroom teacher for two decades. He views 7th grade as a crucial year for influencing students’ attitudes and behaviors as it is around the time when students begin to make distinctions between athletes and non-athletes. Non-athletes start the year eager to please, but as they progress through middle school they develop an apathetic attitude.

This phenomenon parallels the experience many have with math, when distinctions begin to be made between who is good at math and who is not. Those who are not athletically inclined may simply exert less effort and disparage those proficient in the area. According to Joe, instruction doesn’t change much for the athletes, but by 8th grade the non-athletes have largely given up and merely “walk and talk” in class, without expending much effort.

Evidence of the marginalization comes even earlier. Jane, director of a day care center and the mother of two elementary school students in a suburb of Minneapolis, says she has seen a decrease in recess and gym time for her children, dropping from the daily schedule to three times a week, then maybe to once a week. She’s heard that in some schools, parents have a choice to opt their child out of all physical education.

Parents can remove their children from phys-ed for any number of reasons — they might want to help their non-athletic children avoid a potentially embarrassing situation or say they want their kids to focus on raising their GPA. Jane also mentioned the academic pressures that start now in middle school for college preparation. She believes children are losing out on the important social aspects of movement and athletics.

In the face of growing concerns over obesity and other health issues, school leaders might benefit from emphasizing the importance of phys-ed classes. They could do so through better support of phys-ed teachers, better resource allocation, increased involvement of phys-ed teachers in school curriculum issues and by discouraging class absence in the same measure that other class absences are discouraged. These changes also might benefit the school environment by bringing athletes and non-athletes closer together in terms of how they see their role in the school and, ultimately, in how they view the importance of taking care of themselves in mind and body.

Jessica Skolnikoff is a professor of anthropology at Roger Williams University, in Bristol, R.I. E-mail: jskolnikoff@rwu.edu. Robert Engvall is a professor of justice studies at Roger Williams University, R.I. They are co-authors of Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes, and Helicopter Parents: The Productivity of Play (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014).