Physical Education in American Schools Is Getting Lapped

States’ P.E. requirements are inconsistent and often out of keeping with expert recommendations.

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Every week, it seems, we see another article about the greatness of Finland’s schools: sky-high test scores, no formal schooling until age 7 (when our kids are already taking their practice PARCCs), and a “mandatory 15-minute outdoor free-play break every hour of every day.” And earlier this year, we read about a Texas school that massively upped the recess time from 20 minutes to an hour and saw impressive results not just on the playground but in the classroom: It seems that the more play time kids get, the better they behave. My household furnishes ample empirical evidence of this: Often, the only way to calm down my excessively “active” 6-year-old is to get him running laps in our backyard, over and over and over until he’s covered in sweat and ready to sit down for dinner.

Are U.S. schools shortchanging kids of the movement they need to learn?

An annual study released last week by SHAPE America (the Society of Health and Physical Educators) and Voices for Healthy Kids says yes. The study, conducted via survey of state education departments, found that, while most states purport to believe in the importance of P.E., many also “allow waivers, exemptions, and substitutions for physical education.” Schools also routinely withhold P.E. from misbehaving kids; only 10 states prohibit this practice. Funding for P.E. is also pretty pathetic, with schools getting an average of $764 a year for exercise programs. (The SHAPE communications director clarified that this is not a per-pupil allotment: This is the total an average school gets for P.E., excluding teacher salaries.)

In the whole country, only Oregon and the District of Columbia meet the P.E. guidelines issued by the American Heart Association and the Society of Health and Physical Educators: 150 minutes a week in elementary school, and 225 minutes in middle and high school. Only 19 states even specify how much time schools should devote to P.E.

And despite our country’s horrific obesity stats—nearly one third of all kids between the ages of 2 and 19 qualify as overweight or obese—more schools are cutting both formal P.E. instruction and recess to make way for instructional time even as some parents, like this group in Florida, fight to protect mandatory recess time.

Can the federal government do anything to reverse these trends? Executive involvement in P.E. initiatives dates back to the Eisenhower administration, but it was President John F. Kennedy who believed that “mental and physical vigor” went hand in hand and made it his personal mission to get the youth of America in shape with in-school P.E. programs, complete with annual races and extensive scoring. (Check out this video for a glimpse at how sophisticated P.E. could get during the JFK years.)

With the passage of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, there is some hope that schools will develop a more coherent commitment to physical fitness. P.E. programs are now eligible for Title I funding, which was not the case under No Child Left Behind, and nonprofits like Playworks are growing nationwide. This is, I think, an overwhelmingly positive thing.

I will offer my own experience as a case study: Despite being a supremely unsporty person, I went to a school that cared about P.E.—a lot. And, for all my gripes, I showed up, year after year, and ran innumerable laps and shot thousands of baskets and timed an endless succession of partners doing push-ups. And, after a certain number of years of engaging in these activities, I somehow learned to enjoy them, or at least to depend on a much watered-down version of them for my mental clarity in adulthood. I’m pretty sure JFK would be proud.