Is Education Reform Killing Gym?

The class we loved to hate is more important than we thought.

Spring in my neighborhood is announced by a variety of sights, sounds and smells—some delightful, like the first blooms on the lilac bush in our back yard, others not so much (the incessant jingling of the wretched Mister Softee truck that will plague our sleep for the next four months). Still others are downright sobering. The roving packs of scantily clad obese children that emerge red-eyed and pasty after a winter spent hibernating in front of the television set fall into this category.

While childhood obesity is certainly not unique to my neighborhood, like most lower-income urban areas, it is endemic here. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of American children aged 6–11 who are overweight or obese increased from seven percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2010. Control for poverty and the proportion of fat kids rises to nearly a third. I’m not a betting man, but I’d be willing to wager that if you looked out my front window on any given summer day, you’d see two overweight children for every one who is physically fit.

Food is certainly a factor; I’ve written extensively in the past about the nutrition gap between rich and poor Americans. But hot dogs and Arctic Splash Iced Tea are only part of the problem. Even if these kids were eating a well-balanced diet—and from what I’ve observed most of them are not—data shows they are simply not getting enough exercise to adequately burn the calories they consume.

A report released last week by the Institutes of Medicine shines a spotlight on the problem and draws a direct link to our increasingly dysfunctional system of public education. The IOM found that only about half of U.S. school-age children engage in the recommended 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day (boys are more likely to meet the daily goal than girls).  At least half of this hour should take place during school hours. But with fewer schools investing in physical education programs, the gym classes most of us dreaded in the 1970s and 80s are fast becoming a relic.

The Government Accountability Office found that between 2000 and 2006, the percentage of elementary schools that offered P.E. at least three days a week declined by nearly half. The culprit, not surprisingly, appears to be No Child Left Behind, which, since taking effect in January 2002, has decimated school art, music, social studies and physical education programs to make room for more math and reading. As a result, 44 percent of school officials report cutting significant time from P.E. to bolster standardized test-oriented subjects, the IOM found. Experts say President Obama’s Race to the Top program, which places even more emphasis on core academics, threatens to accelerate this shift.

In the U.S., gym class has been a part of kids’ lives almost as long as organized elementary education, when early proponents of the Common School movement of the 1830s took to emulating Europeans by promoting athleticism as a component of early childhood education. More than 150 years later, well-meaning but deeply flawed attempts to reform public education have helped turn learning from an endeavor designed to create well-rounded and thoughtful individuals into a competitive sport where success is measured in percentiles and proficiency scores.

Our children’s health is not the only thing at stake. Data reveals strong links between physical activity and academic performance. A meta-analysis of existing research conducted in 2010 by the CDC and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found regular physical activity promotes improved attention; better information processing, storage, and retrieval; and enhanced coping, self-esteem and creativity in students. As an avid runner and cyclist, I can personally attest to these benefits.

Unfortunately, school-sponsored physical education is being sacrificed to the gods of global competitiveness. Today, 38 states have minimum P.E. requirements, but only six require physical education in every grade. And according to a joint report released last year by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, even in schools that have mandatory gym, most still fail to require a specific amount of instructional time, while nearly half allow exemptions, waivers and/or substitutions to students who request them.

Along with the decline in gym class, schools have also been cutting back on so-called “unstructured” physical activity—which most of us probably remember as recess. It’s a trend that is disproportionately impacting kids in impoverished neighborhoods—where the National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 28 percent of schools have abandoned recess altogether. In nearly a dozen states, schools are allowed to deny students recess as a form of punishment.

In an age where play increasingly takes place in front of an Xbox or computer screen, schools are tailor-made environments for encouraging a minimum level of physical activity and therefore a vital link in the chain to mitigating America’s child obesity problem. No one would argue against a public education system that promotes rigorous academic standards; but if such a system can only be attained by sacrificing subjects like music, art and physical education—which for decades played an important role in creating well-rounded adults—it’s obvious we’re doing something wrong.