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Why D.C. schools are ignoring PE guidelines

A Washington Post report on schools in Washington, D.C., revealed that only a handful of more than 200 schools was complying with physical education requirements. The noncompliance reflects greater issues with PE across the United States.

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    Students take a gym class in the cafeteria/all purpose room at Leviton Dual Language Elementary Schoo in this file photo from November 4, 2013, in Providence, R.I.
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Physical Education seems to be taking a recess in schools across the country.

The push against childhood obesity that spurred efforts to increase physical activity and promote exercise over the past decade has begun to sag in recent years as schools begin to move physical education down on the list of educational priorities. Schools in Washington, D.C., have gone so far as to completely ignore PE rules put forth by the district, and there is no indication that they plan to conform to the standards anytime soon.

In 2010, the D.C. council unanimously passed the D.C. Healthy Schools Act to considerable fanfare. The act was hailed as an important step toward reforming school lunch nutrition, health education, and physical education. Among various health-related reforms, schools were required to give 150 minutes of PE to grades K-5 and 225 minutes per week for grades 6-8 by 2014.

Looking back at the legislation from the present day, however, it seems the goals of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act were overly ambitious. The Washington Post found that of more than 200 public and charter schools in the district, only 10 were providing the required amount of minutes of PE.

The lack of compliance points to larger problems regarding physical education requirements across the country.

Since there is no federal law that requires physical education, PE requirements differ radically from state to state. According to the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE), an organization that provides support for physical education professionals and puts forth recommended standards for physical education courses, 74.5 percent of states require PE for their students. But only three states require the recommended 150 minutes per week of PE for elementary schools, and only 22 states require a set amount of weekly minutes at all. 

Even in states with weekly minute requirements, compliance is far from universal. In Oregon legislators passed a law in 2007 mandating that schools incorporate a minimum of 150 minutes of physical education in the school week for grades K-5 and 225 for grades 6-8 by the fall of 2017. Instead of inching toward that goal, some schools' physical education offerings have actually decreased and with just one year until the deadline, less than 10 percent of the state's schools meet the new requirement, the Portland Tribune reported earlier this month.

Nationally, the loss of physical education time appears to be weighing on parents. A 2013 poll conducted by NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health found that 7 out of 10 parents worry that their children's schools do not meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation that students get daily physical education time.

Funding for PE courses around the country varies considerably, and requiring the recommended minutes of PE would mean hiring more professionals – which likely means cutting something else out of the school budget. The amount of time demanded by the requirements in places like D.C. would also cut into time needed for conventional classes, and would require extensive restructuring of school schedules. And even if these problems were circumvented, The Washington Post says that many school officials privately describe the recommended requirements as aspirational or simply too robust, at least in the D.C. school district.

Nevertheless, some schools in the district have been able to accommodate the requirements.

“It’s definitely a challenge, and it’s a shift in culture in how to make that a priority. The ultimate goal that [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommend is that children should be getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day,” Carly Wright of SHAPE told The Washington Post. “So is it unreasonable to ask schools to provide at least 30 minutes a day of physical education? Not really. It’s just a shift in thinking and how to work out class scheduling.”

But due to difficulties in scheduling, finances, or doubts about the necessity of PE, many schools around the country are reducing or eliminating their physical education programs altogether, according to a study published in the Journal of Teaching in Physical Education in 2012.

“This lack of a judicial safety net strengthens the need for clear legislative guidance if the statutes are to be interpreted in a way that will consistently adhere to the guidelines,” said the study, according to The Red and Black, an independent University of Georgia newspaper. “Given the absence of a national school-based physical education law, it is imperative to investigate whether states have directives ensuring it and that those directives mandate the appropriate amount of instructional time.”

Proper mandates are one thing, but for Donna Anthony, assistant superintendent of health and wellness for the body that oversees DC schools, implementing the 2010 Healthy School Act has been far easier said than done.

“Folks knew it was coming,” Ms. Anthony told The Washington Post, “but that was a pretty hard thing to plan and accommodate for.”

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