BOSTON — For years, dodge ball, squat thrusts, and laps around the gym have been as central to education as book reports and multiplication tables.
But now - at the same time health experts bemoan the slothful state of American youths - a national debate on the relevance of gym class is surfacing from Massachusetts to Michigan.
In an era of tight funding, a growing number of states and school districts are considering doing away with mandatory physical-education classes as a way of giving children more time to focus on academic pursuits. But critics of such moves argue that developing children's bodies is just as important as developing their minds.
At issue is more than a few push-ups and jumpshots. The decisions administrators make will deliver a powerful statement about the direction of American education - and what society expects schools to teach children.
"What kind of message are we giving [if Massachusetts loosens its gym requirements]," asks Gail Stein, assistant principal at Newton North High School in Newton, Mass., referring to a state Board of Education meeting May 15 in which the state's 20-year-old requirement will be discussed. "We talk to kids all the time about not putting drugs in their bodies ... but we're going to tell them we don't care about how they take care of their bodies?"
So far this year, school districts in New Jersey, Michigan, and Illinois have considered dropping required P.E. classes, and a state task force has been formed in Iowa to look into the issue. In Massachusetts, a move to simplify gym-class regulations and give districts more flexibility in designing fitness curricula is coming from the state education commissioner.
Behind much of the reevaluation of physical education - mainly at the high school level - is the mounting pressure on schools to do more with less. A public antitax mood has dovetailed with lagging test scores and industry calls for more student familiarity with computers and technology. That has fueled a back-to-basics and cost-cutting movement in American education, which has led to, among other things, the dropping of many art and music classes.
But P.E. programs - so far - have survived. The nation's near-obsession with health and exercise makes cutting them back unpopular. So does the nation's near-obsession with sports. All this helps explain the reason many states now have P.E. requirements on the books, unlike mandatory rules for some other programs.
But that may be changing. Judy Young, executive director of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, in Reston, Va., says her organization has been fighting a recent trend where schools allow other activities - such as after-school sports, band, and ROTC - to substitute for P.E. requirements.
And the drive to deregulate at the federal and state level could weaken some of the laws protecting P.E. In Massachusetts, for instance, the push to do away with regulations mandating the type and lengths of gym classes is being driven in part by Republican Gov. William Weld's philosophy of minimizing government.
Many critics of mandatory gym blame curriculum planners themselves for the problems with the institution. P.E. classes as currently offered, they say, don't give students a workout. They would rather see the time used for the study of physics than the development of physiques.
A survey of high school seniors in Des Moines last fall found gym the least favorite class because it didn't offer "a variety of meaningful learning experiences" or "preparation for further study or training."
The education commissioner's office in Massachusetts says that one of its motivations for calling for an end to gym-class restrictions is to improve physical education. By giving individual schools and districts more flexibility in how they run their programs, they will have to respond to local P.E. advocates and critics. "That tension leads to better quality physical education programs. That's what will be the result of this, we're quite sure," says Alan Safran, a spokesman for the commissioner, Robert Antonucci.
But teachers and school administrators worry that the debate will lead to a rolling back of gym-class requirements. They point out that, in addition to providing some of the only exercise teens get, P.E. classes teach teamwork, cooperation, and trust among students. P.E. class, they say, is an important break that allows students to go back to class ready to learn.
"I think it's important that kids do something other than academics in school," says Ms. Stein. "There are many facets to these kids. Once you go back to saying that education includes only reading and writing, I don't think you're educating the whole person any more."