Like a lot of kids growing up in the 90’s, I was rather obsessed with the “Goosebumps” series of books written by R.L. Stine. As a kid that was more into playing sports rather than read, this series of books was one of the few things that got me interested in reading on my own at the time. One such book that I particularly enjoyed from this series is titled Be Careful What You Wish For. The book is about a teenage girl named Samantha who is given 3 wishes in exchange for helping a stranger who also happens to be a witch. As a self-conscious teenager who was often the subject of teasing, some of Samantha’s wishes focus on having people’s perceptions of her change for the better so she will feel like she is accepted. As these wishes carry themselves out, she realizes the unintended consequences of these wishes often made things worse off than they were when she started. The lesson Samantha learns from the witch is in the title.
Over the past few weeks as I have had discussions with others in our field, I have kept thinking back to the title of this book and the lesson that Samantha learns as it relates to all of the bills that I see popping up in different state legislatures either requiring or recommending more elementary physical education time. While a lot of my physical education colleagues jump in to support these bills from the get-go, I am hesitant to share their enthusiasm about the possibility of these becoming law. You might think I am crazy for thinking differently here. After all, with the way we in the physical education world have been treated over the last 25 years, it would make sense that we as teachers have been conditioned to blindly support any notion of increased physical education time, right?
Upon reading quite a few of these bills from a variety of states, a few themes seem to pop up. I will go over my issues with them one by one here.
Quite a few of these bills are written in such a way that they fall under the category of “unfunded mandates.” This refers to the state requiring something of local school districts, but in turn not providing them any of the funding necessary to be in compliance should it become law. In the case of these bills written to increase physical education time, it would be necessary to do a plethora of things in order for this to be feasible while still striving to give students a high quality physical education experience, including, but not limited to:
Putting the burden of funding all of these things on the back of local school systems is not only unfair in situations like this, it is also not possible due to budgets that are already often bare-bones. So what happens when unfunded mandates of increasing physical education time required at the state level meet the no-funding realities at the local level?
The Decline of Quality:
Faced with the need to increase the amount of physical education time students receive, but no additional funding for the necessities outlined above to preserve quality physical education, what we end up with is a less-than-ideal situation for both students and teachers.
To accommodate the necessary schedule for increased P.E. time, more classes and students will now have to be fit into the same time blocks as before. Depending on school enrollment size and how much more P.E. time is being added, this can mean double, triple and even whole grade-level classes simultaneously scheduled in physical education to become the norm. With recent research showing just how important teacher to student ratios are in relation to student achievement and student experience, this kind of situation would be in direct contrast of these findings.
In the case of having more students/classes being scheduled in P.E. than safety would allow for within the gym, some physical education classes will likely be forced into general ed classrooms, hallways or other spaces not designed for what our students need if outside space is not available. While many P.E. teachers are unfortunately in this kind of situation now and are doing the best they can for their students, we need to be careful about normalizing this kind of environment for our subject area.
When it comes to physical education equipment, a lot of our schools here in the US are already less than fortunate. Increasing the amount of students that are in P.E. at any given time during the school day without enough equipment to go around limits the amount of activities the teacher can plan for. Lines will likely become longer, students will become more impatient and behaviors are likely to increase.
These kind of work conditions would be difficult for even the most experienced of master P.E. teachers to try and provide a program of value for his or her students. If this is the case for a master teacher that is intrinsically motivated to be the best they can be, what chance does a run-of-the-mill PE teacher or someone that is new to the profession have to give their students a positive experience? As much as I hate to say it, in these kinds of situations, teaching and learning likely may no longer be the focus of each “lesson.” P.E. teachers that find themselves in these situations may rather just be looking to survive until the end of the day and I’m not sure I can blame them…
P.E. vs. P.A.:
As is the case with a lot of these bills that have been introduced in states across the country, they seem to be written by policy makers that have the understanding that physical education is the same as physical activity. If equating these two entities is too strong of a statement, the language in many of these bills at least seems to suggest that the prime goal of physical education is to increase physical activity time. Look at what part of the preamble of one of these recent bills looks like in an effort to explain the rationale for such a bill:
While the statements in the preamble are true, it is preposterous to put the weight of the obesity epidemic on the shoulders of physical educators for a variety of reasons. And while it may sound like blasphemy to some, physical activity for the purpose of fitness improvement probably shouldn’t be our main focus as physical educators. Outlining it as such in bills like this is setting us up to be a "false-prophet" in the grand scheme of things. There is no doubt that physical activity is important and while I am certainly not against promoting or engaging our students in physical activity within our classes, quality physical education is SO much more than physical activity.
From the preamble, this particular bill goes on to state the responsibilities of schools (i.e. P.E. programs) to meet additional requirements related to student wellness. While focusing in on student wellness is something I think that our schools and P.E. programs need to do a better job of, the language of the remainder of this particular bill continues to frame wellness mainly through the lens of student fitness levels, once again simplifying our complex and valuable content area down to a one-dimensional entity.
Think of how different the preamble and content of this bill would read if it connected our content area to the mental, social and emotional benefits seen as a result of the environments we create and lessons we provide rather than the things that can be measured through fitness tests and psychomotor skill performances. Think of how different this bill would be perceived if it placed our content area at the center of a multi-dimensional wellness approach to helping students rather than just saying "get them fit." Using this kind of language and thinking when molding this or future bills could go a long way in giving our profession the respect we deserve within the educational landscape.
To me, decisions to increase P.E. time are best made at the local level rather than the state level. A lot of the surrounding school districts near me seem to have this opinion as well based on their response to the recent bill proposed in Maryland.
There is never a “one-size-fits-all” solution to anything and since no two schools within the state are exactly the same in regards to any metric, it would be foolish of us to treat things as such. As someone who believes in quality physical education above all else in our profession, legislation like this, while no doubt well-intended, can often have unintended consequences. In situations like this, we have to ask ourselves, is it worth it to increase in physical education time without the funding likely necessary to provide our students with the teachers, resources and facilities needed to give them a positive physical education experience? From what I have seen, sacrificing the quality for quantity rarely works out for anyone...
So the next time a bill like this gets introduced in your state legislature, think twice and ask yourself some of the same questions I posed in this blog. I know we would all like to think that bills like this might solve a lot of our problems, but like the title of one of my favorite Goosebumps books says, “be careful what you wish for.”