It’s almost too easy to satirize physical education, better known by its eye-roll-inducing abbreviation P.E. From Clueless to Superbad to Spiderman: Homecoming, parodies of gym class are a pop-culture darling. Perhaps that’s because they speak to one of America’s fundamental truths: For many kids, P.E. is terrible.
A recent working paper focused on a massive P.E. initiative in Texas captures this reality. Analyzing data out of the state’s Texas Fitness Now program—a $37 million endeavor to improve middle schoolers’ fitness, academic achievement, and behavior by requiring them to participate in P.E. every day—the researchers concluded that the daily mandate didn’t have any positive impact on kids’ health or educational outcome. On the contrary: They found that the program, which ran from 2007 to 2011, actually had detrimental effects, correlating with an uptick in discipline and absence rates.
As for why this particular P.E. program was counterproductive, Analisa Packham, an economics professor at Miami University in Ohio who co-authored the study, points to bullying as one potential reason. Students are more likely to be bullied in middle school than at any other point in their academic careers, and P.E. presents a particularly ripe opportunity for abuse, whether because the class forces them to use a locker room, where adult supervision is limited, or because it facilitates the teasing of overweight or unathletic kids.
The paper posits that by subjecting participants—namely low-income kids, as the Fitness Now grants targeted campuses serving disadvantaged populations—to these circumstances on a daily basis, the P.E. requirement made students less inclined to go to school. “These adolescents were not enjoying the daily P.E. requirements and would’ve rather skipped school,” suggests Packham, who as an economist has focused her research on the outcomes of health programs. The Fitness Now program required that students participate in at least 30 minutes of physical education every school day. Schools that took part in the grant received $10,000 on average to help improve their P.E. programs by adding classes, for example, or hiring coaches and fitness instructors. They also used the money to purchase equipment such as stopwatches, jump ropes, and free weights.
According to the study, the program resulted in a roughly 16 percent increase in the number of disciplinary actions for each student. The study also found that the proportion of misbehaving students went up by more than 7 percent.
The findings of the study, which has yet to be published in an academic journal, are limited in scope. Still, the new paper adds much-needed nuance to the body of research that has evaluated the effectiveness of various approaches to P.E., complicating the findings of studies that generally assert the importance of school policies that encourage regular opportunities for physical activity.
It’s hard to argue that a given P.E. program is anything but well intended, particularly when considering that children spend most of their waking hours—and meals—at school, and that childhood obesity is a national crisis. But the kind of strategy taken by many of the Fitness Now schools may not be the most effective way to achieve the purported goals.
To be effective, a P.E. program typically needs to be multifaceted and holistic, suggests a 2013 book on America’s physical-education landscape that was co-edited by Harold Kohl, a professor of kinesiology and health education at the University of Texas at Austin. That might involve healthy-living and nutrition classes, parent education, and frequent opportunities for unstructured play—all on top of more conventional “gym class.” This may help explain why, for example, one 2012 study based on data from the National Survey of Children’s Health found that required P.E. alone generally doesn’t have any noteworthy impact on boys’ physical-activity levels or obesity, though it did have a marginal impact on girls’. Similarly, an earlier 2015 study on Texas’s Fitness Now program found it to be largely ineffective, resulting in slight improvements to kids’ fitness skills and having no impact on BMI or academic achievement.
The results of Packham’s paper on the Fitness Now program support the basic takeaway that the design of P.E. courses is what’s most consequential, and they hint at two interconnected factors that experts suggest tend to undermine the impact of such curricula. For one, P.E. programs often rely on a superficial notion of gym class—conceiving of physical activity as little more than a timed run around the track, for example, or a game of kickball—and this results in worse offerings. And then, when students feel forced to take these basic offerings, they may resent the classes more than they would otherwise. “Older kids have already formed these important eating and exercising habits, and changing their daily decisions is more complicated than just providing money for jump ropes,” Packham says.
Despite greater recognition of the academic benefits of physical activities—including guidelines from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stressing that kids should get at least an hour of such activities a day—schools began to deprioritize P.E. about two decades ago, and the cuts have persisted in many cases, suggests Kohl. Accompanying this shift has been a movement away from casual activities such as recess, which experts argue is one of the more effective means of promoting children’s physical health. An immense body of research demonstrates the positive benefits of increased recess time, which schools started to cut after No Child Left Behind was signed into law, because of the policy’s emphasis on academic subjects such as reading and math.
Justin Cahill, a veteran P.E. educator who’s taught at an Atlanta-area private school for the past decade or so, stresses that it’s the typical application of physical education rather than the fundamental concept that results in bad outcomes. Until the past few years, P.E. classes tended to focus on kids’ acquisition of skills, such as dribbling a ball, and the fulfillment of universal benchmarks, such as the ability to run around a track three times within some specific amount of time. This approach, he says, “breeds stagnation and disinterest—the kids are like, ‘Yeah, this is ridiculous.’” It can also, as Packham’s study suggests, breed resentment: After all, in this “old school” version of P.E., certain kids are bound to struggle.
Cahill maintains that many P.E. programs are high caliber, successful in both engaging students and producing positive health and wellness outcomes. Echoing the findings outlined in Kohl’s book, he says that positive results are contingent on a multifaceted and holistic design—what he defines as programs that inspire children to exercise without realizing they’re exercising, that simply ensure they’re constantly moving, during recess, frequent “brain breaks” to get out “the sillies,” morning jogs, and, yes, regular P.E. class. Positive results are also contingent on experienced, empathetic P.E. teachers—those who know to modify a curriculum to meet a certain student’s needs, and to give kudos to that child who can’t run around the track. After all, research shows that people can get a good workout even when walking, and the more important thing is to create a healthy relationship with exercise that can last for decades.
Cahill’s own observations at annual conferences—and in his Facebook group for physical-education teachers across the country looking to exchange research on best practices and their own anecdotal advice—make him confident that P.E.’s reputation will improve in the years ahead. “I think P.E. is in a very good place right now,” he says, comparing it with the norm of earlier decades, and even of the early 2000s, after the passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. “Teachers are enlightened. The arrow is flipped.”
Still, even if P.E.’s bright spots are evolving into the status quo, both Kohl and Packham argue that P.E. has been scapegoated for public-health problems concerning children, including obesity. “It’s been a false flag that we’ve only looked at P.E.,” Kohl says, “when in fact it’s not the only way that kids can get physical activity.
“By making kids sit and be quiet and learn rather than allowing them to be physically active, we may actually be holding their test scores down,” Kohl continues. “We may be kidding ourselves by making kids sit in classrooms all the time.” For Kohl, the ideal P.E. program would still be five days a week—but unlike the Texas requirement, it would be more focused on building active recess periods into the day and include opportunities before and after school to, say, ride one’s bicycle or walk to and from school and participate in sports.