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Committee on Physical Activity and Physical Education in the School Environment; Food and Nutrition Board; Institute of Medicine; Kohl HW III, Cook HD, editors. Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Oct 30.

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Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School.

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5Approaches to Physical Education in Schools

Key Messages

  • Because it is guaranteed to reach virtually all children, physical education is the only sure opportunity for nearly all school-age children to access health-enhancing physical activities.
  • High-quality physical education programs are characterized by (1) instruction by certified physical education teachers, (2) a minimum of 150 minutes per week (30 minutes per day) for children in elementary schools and 225 minutes per week (45 minutes per day) for students in middle and high schools, and (3) tangible standards for student achievement and for high school graduation.
  • Students are more physically active on days on which they have physical education.
  • Quality physical education has strong support from both parents and child health professional organizations.
  • Several models and examples demonstrate that physical education scheduled during the school day is feasible on a daily basis.
  • Substantial discrepancies exist in state mandates regarding the time allocated for physical education.
  • Nearly half of school administrators (44 percent) reported cutting significant time from physical education and recess to increase time spent in reading and mathematics since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act.
  • Standardized national-level data on the provision of and participation, performance, and extent of engagement in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity are insufficient to allow assessment of the current status and trends in physical education in the United States.
  • Systematic research is needed on personal, curricular, and policy barriers to successful physical education.
  • The long-term impact of physical education has been understudied and should be a research priority to support the development of evidence-based policies.

Physical education is a formal content area of study in schools that is standards based and encompasses assessment based on standards and benchmarks. It is defined in Chapter 1 as “a planned sequential K-12 standards-based program of curricula and instruction designed to develop motor skills, knowledge, and behaviors of healthy active living, physical fitness, sportsmanship, self-efficacy, and emotional intelligence.” As a school subject, physical education is focused on teaching school-aged children the science and methods of physically active, healthful living (NASPE, 2012). It is an avenue for engaging in developmentally appropriate physical activities designed for children to develop their fitness, gross motor skills, and health (Sallis et al., 2003; Robinson and Goodway, 2009; Robinson, 2011). This chapter (1) provides a perspective on physical education in the context of schooling; (2) elaborates on the importance of physical education to child development; (3) describes the consensus on the characteristics of quality physical education programs; (4) reviews current national, state, and local education policies that affect the quality of physical education; and (5) examines barriers to quality physical education and solutions for overcoming them.


Physical education became a subject matter in schools (in the form of German and Swedish gymnastics) at the beginning of the 19th century (Hackensmith, 1966). Its role in human health was quickly recognized. By the turn of the 20th century, personal hygiene and exercise for bodily health were incorporated in the physical education curriculum as the major learning outcomes for students (Weston, 1962). The exclusive focus on health, however, was criticized by educator Thomas Wood (1913; Wood and Cassidy, 1930) as too narrow and detrimental to the development of the whole child. The education community subsequently adopted Wood's inclusive approach to physical education whereby fundamental movements and physical skills for games and sports were incorporated as the major instructional content. During the past 15 years, physical education has once again evolved to connect body movement to its consequences (e.g., physical activity and health), teaching children the science of healthful living and skills needed for an active lifestyle (NASPE, 2004).

Sallis and McKenzie (1991) published a landmark paper stating that physical education is education content using a “comprehensive but physically active approach that involves teaching social, cognitive, and physical skills, and achieving other goals through movement” (p. 126). This perspective is also emphasized by Siedentop (2009), who states that physical education is education through the physical. Sallis and McKenzie (1991) stress two main goals of physical education: (1) prepare children and youth for a lifetime of physical activity and (2) engage them in physical activity during physical education. These goals represent the lifelong benefits of health-enhancing physical education that enable children and adolescents to become active adults throughout their lives.

Physical Education as Part of Education

In institutionalized education, the main goal has been developing children's cognitive capacity in the sense of learning knowledge in academic disciplines. This goal dictates a learning environment in which seated learning behavior is considered appropriate and effective and is rewarded. Physical education as part of education provides the only opportunity for all children to learn about physical movement and engage in physical activity. As noted, its goal and place in institutionalized education have changed from the original focus on teaching hygiene and health to educating children about the many forms and benefits of physical movement, including sports and exercise. With a dramatic expansion of content beyond the original Swedish and German gymnastics programs of the 19th century, physical education has evolved to become a content area with diverse learning goals that facilitate the holistic development of children (NASPE, 2004).

To understand physical education as a component of the education system, it is important to know that the education system in the United States does not operate with a centralized curriculum. Learning standards are developed by national professional organizations such as the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) and/or state education agencies rather than by the federal Department of Education; all curricular decisions are made locally by school districts or individual schools in compliance with state standards. Physical education is influenced by this system, which leads to great diversity in policies and curricula. According to NASPE and the American Heart Association (2010), although most states have begun to mandate physical education for both elementary and secondary schools, the number of states that allow waivers/exemptions from or substitutions for physical education increased from 27 and 18 in 2006 to 32 and 30 in 2010, respectively. These expanded waiver and substitution policies (discussed in greater detail later in the chapter) increase the possibility that students will opt out of physical education for nonmedical reasons.

Curriculum Models

Given that curricula are determined at the local level in the United States, encompassing national standards, state standards, and state-adopted textbooks that meet and are aligned with the standards, physical education is taught in many different forms and structures. Various curriculum models are used in instruction, including movement education, sport education, and fitness education. In terms of engagement in physical activity, two perspectives are apparent. First, programs in which fitness education curricula are adopted are effective at increasing in-class physical activity (Lonsdale et al., 2013). Second, in other curriculum models, physical activity is considered a basis for students' learning skill or knowledge that the lesson is planned for them to learn. A paucity of nationally representative data is available with which to demonstrate the relationship between the actual level of physical activity in which students are engaged and the curriculum models adopted by their schools.

Movement Education

Movement has been a cornerstone of physical education since the 1800s. Early pioneers (Francois Delsarte, Liselott Diem, Rudolf von Laban) focused on a child's ability to use his or her body for self-expression (Abels and Bridges, 2010). Exemplary works and curriculum descriptions include those by Laban himself (Laban, 1980) and others (e.g., Logsdon et al., 1984). Over time, however, the approach shifted from concern with the inner attitude of the mover to a focus on the function and application of each movement (Abels and Bridges, 2010). In the 1960s, the intent of movement education was to apply four movement concepts to the three domains of learning (i.e., cognitive, psychomotor, and affective). The four concepts were body (representing the instrument of the action); space (where the body is moving); effort (the quality with which the movement is executed); and relationships (the connections that occur as the body moves—with objects, people, and the environment; Stevens-Smith, 2004). The importance of movement in physical education is evidenced by its inclusion in the first two NASPE standards for K-12 physical education (NASPE, 2004; see Box 5-7 later in this chapter).

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BOX 5-7

Standards for a Physically Educated Person. SOURCE: NASPE, 2004.

These standards emphasize the need for children to know basic movement concepts and be able to perform basic movement patterns. It is imperative for physical educators to foster motor success and to provide children with a basic skill set that builds their movement repertoire, thus allowing them to engage in various forms of games, sports, and other physical activities (see also Chapter 3).

Sport Education

One prevalent physical education model is the sport education curriculum designed by Daryl Siedentop (Siedentop, 1994; Siedentop et al., 2011). The goal of the model is to “educate students to be players in the fullest sense and to help them develop as competent, literate, and enthusiastic sportspersons” (2011, p. 4, emphasis in original). The model entails a unique instructional structure featuring sport seasons that are used as the basis for planning and teaching instructional units. Students are organized into sport organizations (teams) and play multiple roles as team managers, coaches, captains, players, referees, statisticians, public relations staff, and others to mimic a professional sports organization. A unit is planned in terms of a sports season, including preseason activity/practice, regular-season competition, playoffs and/or tournaments, championship competition, and a culminating event (e.g., an awards ceremony or sport festivity). Depending on the developmental level of students, the games are simplified or modified to encourage maximum participation. In competition, students play the roles noted above in addition to the role of players. A sport education unit thus is much longer than a conventional physical education unit. Siedentop and colleagues (2011) recommend 20 lessons per unit, so that all important curricular components of the model can be implemented.

Findings from research on the sport education model have been reviewed twice. Wallhead and O'Sullivan (2005) report that evidence is insufficient to support the conclusion that use of the model results in students' developing motor skills and fitness and learning relevant knowledge; some evidence suggests that the model leads to stronger team cohesion, more active engagement in lessons, and increased competence in game play. In a more recent review, Hastie and colleagues (2011) report on emerging evidence suggesting that the model leads to improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness (only one study) and mixed evidence regarding motor skills development, increased feeling of enjoyment in participation in physical education, increased sense of affiliation with the team and physical education, and positive development of fair-play values. The only study on in-class physical activity using the model showed that it contributed to only 36.6 percent activity at the vigorous- or moderate-intensity levels (Parker and Curtner-Smith, 2005). Hastie and colleagues caution, however, that because only 6 of 38 studies reviewed used an experimental or quasi-experimental design, the findings must be interpreted with extreme caution. The model's merits in developing motor skills, fitness, and desired physical activity behavior have yet to be determined in studies with more rigorous research designs.

Fitness Education

Instead of focusing exclusively on having children move constantly to log activity time, a new curricular approach emphasizes teaching them the science behind why they need to be physically active in their lives. The curriculum is designed so that the children are engaged in physical activities that demonstrate relevant scientific knowledge. The goal is the development and maintenance of individual student fitness. In contrast with the movement education and sport education models, the underlying premise is that physical activity is essential to a healthy lifestyle and that students' understanding of fitness and behavior change result from engagement in a fitness education program. The conceptual framework for the model is designed around the health-related components of cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility. A recent meta-analysis (Lonsdale et al., 2013) suggests that physical education curricula that include fitness activities can significantly increase the amount of time spent in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity.

Several concept-based fitness education curriculum models exist for both the middle school and senior high school levels. They include Fitness for Life: Middle School (Corbin et al., 2007); Personal Fitness for You (Stokes and Schultz, 2002); Get Active! Get Fit! (Stokes and Schultz, 2009); Personal Fitness: Looking Good, Feeling Good (Williams, 2005); and Foundations of Fitness (Rainey and Murray, 2005). Activities in the curriculum are designed for health benefits, and the ultimate goal for the student is to develop a commitment to regular exercise and physical activity. It is assumed that all children can achieve a health-enhancing level of fitness through regular engagement in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity.

Randomized controlled studies on the impact of a science-based fitness curriculum in 15 elementary schools showed that, although the curriculum allocated substantial lesson time to learning cognitive knowledge, the students were more motivated to engage in physical activities than students in the 15 control schools experiencing traditional physical education (Chen et al., 2008), and they expended the same amount of calories as their counterparts in the control schools (Chen et al., 2007). Longitudinal data from the study reveal continued knowledge growth in the children that strengthened their understanding of the science behind exercise and active living (Sun et al., 2012). What is unclear, however, is whether the enthusiasm and knowledge gained through the curriculum will translate into the children's lives outside of physical education to help them become physically active at home.

To incorporate standards and benchmarks into a fitness education model, a committee under the auspices of NASPE (2012) developed the Instructional Framework for Fitness Education in Physical Education. It is suggested that through this proposed comprehensive framework, fitness education be incorporated into the existing physical education curriculum and embedded in the content taught in all instructional units. The entire framework, highlighted in Box 5-1, can be viewed at (accessed February 1, 2013).

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BOX 5-1

Instructional Framework for Fitness Education in Physical Education. Technique: Demonstrate competency in techniques needed to perform a variety of moderate to vigorous physical activities. Technique in developing cardiovascular fitness.

Emergence of Active Gaming in Fitness Education

Today, active gaming and cell phone/computer applications are a part of physical activity for both youth and adults. Accordingly, fitness education in school physical education programs is being enhanced through the incorporation of active video games, also known as exergaming. Examples of active gaming programs with accompanying equipment include Konami Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Nintendo Wii, Gamebikes, Kinect XBOX, Xavix, and Hopsports. These active games have been incorporated into school wellness centers as high-tech methods of increasing student fitness levels to supplement the traditional modes for attaining vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity (Greenberg and Stokes, 2007).

Bailey and McInnis (2011) compared selected active games with treadmill walking and found that each game—DDR, LightSpace (Bug Invasion), Nintendo Wii (Boxing), Cyber Trazer (Goalie Wars), Sportwall, and Xavix (J-Mat)—raised energy expenditure above that measured at rest. Mean metabolic equivalent (MET) values for each game were comparable to or higher than those measured for walking on a treadmill at 3 miles per hour. Graf and colleagues (2009), studying boys and girls aged 10-13, found that both Wii boxing and DDR (level 2) elicited energy expenditure, heart rate, perceived exertion, and ventilatory responses that were comparable to or greater than those elicited by moderate-intensity walking on a treadmill. Similar results were found by Lanningham-Foster and colleagues (2009) among 22 children aged 10-14 and adults in that energy expenditure for both groups increased significantly when playing Wii over that expended during all sedentary activities. Staiano and colleagues (2012) explored factors that motivated overweight and obese African American high school students to play Wii during school-based physical activity opportunities. They found greater and more sustained energy expenditure over time and noted that players' various intrinsic motivations to play also influenced their level of energy expenditure. Mellecker and McManus (2008) determined that energy expenditure and heart rate were greater during times of active play than in seated play. Fawkner and colleagues (2010) studied 20 high school–age girls and found that dance simulation games provided an opportunity for most subjects to achieve a moderate-intensity level of physical activity. The authors conclude that regular use of the games aids in promoting health through physical activity. Haddock and colleagues (2009) conducted ergometer tests with children aged 7-14 and found increased oxygen consumption and energy expenditure above baseline determinations. Maddison and colleagues (2007), studying children aged 10-14, found that active video game playing led to significant increases in energy expenditure, heart rate, and activity counts in comparison with baseline values. They conclude that playing these games for short time periods is comparable to light- to moderate-intensity conventional modes of exercise, including walking, skipping, and jogging. Mhurchu and colleagues (2008) also conclude that a short-term intervention involving active video games is likely to be an effective means of increasing children's overall level of physical activity. Additionally, Sit and colleagues (2010), studying the effects of active gaming among 10-year-old children in Hong Kong, found the children to be significantly more physically active while playing interactive games compared with screen-based games.

Exergaming appears to increase acute physical activity among users and is being used in school settings because it is appealing to students. Despite active research in the area of exergaming and physical activity, however, exergaming's utility for increasing acute and habitual physical activity specifically in the physical education setting has yet to be confirmed. Further, results of studies conducted in nonlaboratory and nonschool settings have been mixed (Baranowski et al., 2008). Moreover, any physical activity changes that do occur may not be sufficient to stimulate physiologic changes. For example, White and colleagues (2009) examined the effects of Nintendo Wii on physiologic changes. Although energy expenditure was raised above resting values during active gaming, the rise was not significant enough to qualify as part of the daily 60 minutes or more of vigorous-or moderate-intensity exercise recommended for children.

While collecting data on the effects of Nintendo Wii on 11-year-olds in New Zealand, White and colleagues (2009) found that active video games generated higher energy expenditure than both resting and inactive screen watching. They determined, however, that active gaming is a “low-intensity” physical activity. Therefore, it may be helpful in reducing the amount of sedentary behavior, but it should not be used as a replacement for more conventional modes of physical activity. Sun (2012) found that active gaming can increase student motivation to engage in physical activity, but the motivation may decrease as a result of prolonged exposure to the same games. This study also found that exergaming lessons provided less physical activity for children than regular conventional physical education. For inactive children, however, the exergaming environment is conducive to more active participation in the game-based physical activities than in conventional physical education (Fogel et al., 2010). Finally, Sheehan and Katz (2012) found that among school-age children the use of active gaming added to postural stability, an important component of motor skills development.

From the research cited above, as well as ongoing research being conducted by the Health Games Research Project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, active gaming is promising as a means of providing young children an opportunity to become more physically active and helping them meet the recommended 60 or more minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per day. Different types of games may influence energy expenditure differentially, and some may serve solely as motivation. Selected games also appear to hold greater promise for increasing energy expenditure, while others invite youth to be physically active through motivational engagement. The dynamic and evolving field of active gaming is a promising area for future research as more opportunities arise to become physically active throughout the school environment.

Other Innovative Programs

While several evidence-based physical education programs—such as the Coordinated Approach to Child Health (CATCH) and Sports, Play, and Active Recreation for Kids (SPARK)—are being implemented in schools, many innovative programs also have been implemented nationwide that are motivating and contribute to skills attainment while engaging youth in activities that are fun and fitness oriented. These programs include water sports, involving sailing, kayaking, swimming, canoeing, and paddle boarding; adventure activities such as Project Adventure; winter sports, such as snow skiing and snowshoeing; and extreme sports, such as in-line skating, skateboarding, and cycling.

Differences Among Elementary, Middle, and High Schools

Instructional opportunities vary within and among school levels as a result of discrepancies in state policy mandates. Although the time to be devoted to physical education (e.g., 150 minutes per week for elementary schools and 225 minutes per week for secondary schools) is commonly included in most state mandates, actual time allocation in school schedules is uncertain and often left to the discretion of local education officials.

With respect to content, in both elementary and secondary schools, physical activity is an assumed rather than an intended outcome except in the fitness education model. The goals of skill development and knowledge growth in physical education presumably are accomplished through participation in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity. Data are lacking, however, to support the claim that physical activity offered to further the attainment of skills and knowledge is of vigorous or moderate intensity and is of sufficient duration for children to reap health benefits.

Children in Nontraditional Schools

Research on physical education, physical activity, and sports opportunities in nontraditional school settings (charter schools, home schools, and correctional facilities) is extremely limited. Two intervention studies focused on charter schools addressed issues with Mexican American children. In the first (Johnston et al., 2010), 10- to 14-year-old children were randomly assigned to either an instructor-led intervention or a self-help intervention for 2 years. The instructor-led intervention was a structured daily opportunity for the students to learn about nutrition and to engage in structured physical activities. The results indicate that the children in the instructor-led intervention lost more weight at the end of the intervention than those in the self-help condition. In the second study (Romero, 2012), 11- to 16-year-old Mexican American children from low-income families participated in a 5-week, 10-lesson, hip-hop dance physical activity intervention. In comparison with data collected prior to the intervention, the children reported greater frequency of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity, lower perceived community barriers to physical activity, and stronger self-efficacy for physical activity. Collectively, the results of these two studies suggest that a structured physical activity intervention can be effective in enhancing and enriching physical activity opportunities for Mexican American adolescents in charter schools.

Research on physical activity among home-schooled children is also limited. The only study found was published in 2004 (Welk et al., 2004). It describes differences in physical fitness, psychosocial correlates of physical activity, and physical activity between home-schooled children and their public school counterparts aged 9-16. No significant differences were found between the two groups of children on the measures used, but the researchers did note that the home-schooled children tended to be less physically active.

Research on physical education and physical activity in juvenile correction institutions is equally scarce. Munson and colleagues (1985, 1988) conducted studies on the use of physical activity programs as a behavior mediation intervention strategy and compared its impact on juvenile delinquents' behavior change with that of other intervention strategies. They found that physical activity did not have a stronger impact than other programs on change in delinquent behavior.

Fitness Assessment

All states except Iowa have adopted state standards for physical education. However, the extent to which students achieve the standards is limited since no accountability is required.

An analysis of motor skills competency, strategic knowledge, physical activity, and physical fitness among 180 4th- and 5th-grade children demonstrated that the physical education standards in force were difficult to attain (Erwin and Castelli, 2008). Among the study participants, fewer than a half (47 percent) were deemed motor competent, 77 percent demonstrated adequate progress in knowledge, only 40 percent were in the Healthy Fitness Zone on all five components of the Fitnessgram fitness assessment, and merely 15 percent engaged in 60 or more minutes of physical activity each day. Clearly most of the children failed to meet benchmark measures of performance for this developmental stage. This evidence highlights the need for additional physical activity opportunities within and beyond physical education to enhance opportunities for students to achieve the standards.

Relationships among these student-learning outcomes were further decomposed in a study of 230 children (Castelli and Valley, 2007). The authors determined that aerobic fitness and the number of fitness test scores in the Healthy Fitness Zone were the best predictors of daily engagement in physical activity relative to factors of gender, age, body mass index (BMI), motor skills competency, and knowledge. However, in-class engagement in physical activity was best predicted by aerobic fitness and motor skills competence, suggesting that knowledge and skills should not be overlooked in a balanced physical education curriculum intended to promote lifelong physical activity.

As an untested area, student assessment in physical education has been conducted on many indicators other than learning outcomes. As reported in a seminal study (Hensley and East, 1989), physical education teachers base learning assessment on participation (96 percent), effort (88 percent), attitude (76 percent), sportsmanship (75 percent), dressing out (72 percent), improvement (68 percent), attendance (58 percent), observation of skills (58 percent), knowledge tests (46 percent), skills tests (45 percent), potential (25 percent), and homework (11 percent). These data, while several years old, show that most learning assessments in physical education fail to target relevant learning objectives such as knowledge, skills, and physical activity behavior. The development of teacher-friendly learning assessments consistent with national and/or state standards is sorely needed.

Fitness assessment in the school environment can serve multiple purposes. On the one hand, it can provide both teacher and student with information about the student's current fitness level relative to a criterion-referenced standard, yield valid information that can serve as the basis for developing a personal fitness or exercise program based on current fitness levels, motivate students to do better to achieve a minimum standard of health-related fitness where deficiencies exist, and possibly assist in the identification of potential future health problems. On the other hand, an overall analysis of student fitness assessments provides valuable data that can enable teachers to assess learner outcomes in the physical education curriculum and assess the present curriculum to determine whether it includes sufficient fitness education to allow students to make fitness gains throughout the school year. Fitness assessment also provides a unique opportunity for schools to track data on students longitudinally. The ultimate goal of assessing student fitness in the school environment should be to educate students on the importance of maintaining a physically active lifestyle throughout the life span.

When administering fitness assessments in the school setting, caution is essential to ensure confidentiality of the results. The results and their interpretation should be shared with students and parents/guardians to have the greatest impact. To ensure the greatest benefits from fitness assessment, NASPE (2010) developed a position statement on “Appropriate Uses of Fitness Measurement.” Table 5-1 outlines appropriate and inappropriate practices related to fitness testing in schools and other educational settings.

TABLE 5-1. Appropriate and Inappropriate Practices Related to Fitness Testing in Schools and Other Educational Settings.


Appropriate and Inappropriate Practices Related to Fitness Testing in Schools and Other Educational Settings.

When fitness assessment becomes part of a quality physical education program, teaching and learning strategies will guide all students to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their personal health-related fitness as part of their commitment to lifelong healthy lifestyles. Teachers who incorporate fitness education as a thread throughout all curricula will make the greatest impact in engaging and motivating students to participate in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity in order to maintain and/or improve their personal health-related fitness. For example, the development of the Presidential Youth Fitness Program with the use of a criterion-referenced platform provides students with the educational benefits of fitness assessment knowledge (see Box 5-2). The emergence of one national fitness assessment, Fitnessgram, along with professional development and recognition protocols, further supports fitness education in the school environment.

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BOX 5-2

Presidential Youth Fitness Program. The Presidential Youth Fitness Program, launched in September 2012, is a comprehensive program that provides training and resources to schools for assessing, tracking, and recognizing youth fitness. The program promotes (more...)

Online Physical Education

Online physical education is a growing trend. Fully 59 percent of states allow required physical education credits to be earned through online courses. Only just over half of these states require that the online courses be taught by state-certified physical education teachers. Daum and Buschner (2012) report that, in general, online physical education focuses more on cognitive knowledge than physical skill or physical activity, many online courses fail to meet national standards for learning and physical activity guidelines, and teachers are not concerned about students' accountability for learning.

Although online courses differ from traditional in-school physical education courses in the delivery of instruction, the standards and benchmarks for these courses must mirror those adopted by each individual state, especially when the course is taken to meet high school graduation requirements. NASPE (2007a, p. 2) recommends that all physical education programs include “opportunity to learn, meaningful content, appropriate instruction, and student and program assessment.” If an online physical education program meets these standards, it may be just as effective as a face-to-face program. Online physical education can be tailored to each student's needs, and it helps students learn how to exercise independently. The full NASPE position statement on online physical education can be found at (accessed February 1, 2013). The physical education policy of one online school, the Florida Virtual School, is presented in Box 5-3.

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BOX 5-3

Florida Virtual School's Physical Education Policy. Sections 1001.11(7) and 1003.453(2) of the Florida Statutes require that every school district have a current version of its Physical Education Policy on the district website. This document satisfies (more...)

Online physical education provides another option for helping students meet the standards for physical education if they lack room in their schedule for face-to-face classes, need to make up credit, or are just looking for an alternative to the traditional physical education class. On the other hand, online courses may not be a successful mode of instruction for students with poor time management or technology skills. According to Daum and Buschner (2012), online learning is changing the education landscape despite the limited empirical research and conflicting results on its effectiveness in producing student learning. Through a survey involving 45 online high school physical education teachers, the authors found that almost three-fourths of the courses they taught failed to meet the national guideline for secondary schools of 225 minutes of physical education per week. Most of the courses required physical activity 3 days per week, while six courses required no physical activity. The teachers expressed support, hesitation, and even opposition toward online physical education.

Scheduling Decisions

Lesson scheduling is commonly at the discretion of school principals in the United States. The amount of time dedicated to each subject is often mandated by federal or state statutes. Local education agencies or school districts have latitude to make local decisions that go beyond these federal or state mandates. Often the way courses are scheduled to fill the school day is determined by the managerial skills of the administrator making the decisions or is based on a computer program that generates individual teacher schedules.

Successful curriculum change requires supportive scheduling (see Kramer and Keller, 2008, for an example of curriculum reform in mathematics). More research is needed on the effects of scheduling of physical education. In one such attempt designed to examine the impact of content and lesson length on calorie expenditure in middle school physical education, Chen and colleagues (2012) found that a lesson lasting 45-60 minutes with sport skills or fitness exercises as the major content would enable middle school students to expend more calories than either shorter (30–40 minutes) or longer (65–90 minutes) lessons. The evidence from such research can be used to guide allocation of the recommended weekly amount of physical education (150 minutes for elementary schools, 225 minutes for secondary schools) to achieve optimal health benefits for youth. Additional discussion of scheduling is provided later in this chapter in the section on solutions for overcoming the barriers to quality physical education.


As discussed in Chapter 3, there is a direct correlation between regular participation in physical activity and health in school-age children, suggesting that physical activity provides important benefits directly to the individual child (HHS, 2008). Physical activity during a school day may also be associated with academic benefits (Chapter 4) and children's social and emotional well-being (HHS, 2008; Chapter 3). Physical education, along with other opportunities for physical activity in the school environment (discussed in Chapter 6), is important for optimal health and development in school-age children. It may also serve as a preventive measure for adult conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Little has been learned about the short- and long-term effectiveness of physical education in addressing public health issues (Pate et al., 2011). Because the learning objectives of physical education have not included improvement in health status as a direct measure, indirect measures and correlates have been used as surrogates. However, some promising research, such as that conducted by Morgan and colleagues (2007), has demonstrated that students are more physically active on days when they participate in physical education classes. Further, there is no evidence of a compensatory effect such that children having been active during physical education elect not to participate in additional physical activity on that day. Accordingly, quality physical education contributes to a child's daily accumulation of physical activity and is of particular importance for children who are overweight or who lack access to these opportunities in the home environment (NASPE, 2012).

Unlike other physical activity in school (e.g., intramural or extramural sports), physical education represents the only time and place for every child to learn knowledge and skills related to physical activity and to be physically active during the school day. It also is currently the only time and place for all children to engage in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity safely because of the structured and specialist-supervised instructional environment. It is expected that children will use the skills and knowledge learned in physical education in other physical activity opportunities in school, such as active recess, active transportation, and intramural sports. For these reasons, physical education programming has been identified as the foundation on which multicomponent or coordinated approaches incorporating other physical activity opportunities can be designed and promoted.

Coordinated approaches in one form or another have existed since the early 1900s, but it was not until the 21st century that physical education was acknowledged as the foundation for these approaches. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2010), the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE; 2012), and NASPE (2004, 2010) all support this view because physical education provides students with the tools needed to establish and maintain a physically active lifestyle throughout their life span. As discussed in Chapter 3, research on motor skills development has provided evidence linking physical skill proficiency levels to participation in physical activity and fitness (Stodden et al., 2008, 2009). Exercise psychology research also has identified children's perceived skill competence as a correlate of their motivation for participation in physical activity (Sallis et al., 2000). When school-based multicomponent interventions include physical activities experienced in physical education that are enjoyable and developmentally appropriate, such coordinated efforts are plausible and likely to be effective in producing health benefits (Corbin, 2002). Accordingly, two of the Healthy People 2020 (Healthy People 2020, 2010) objectives for physical activity in youth relate to physical education: “PA-4: Increase the proportion of the Nation's public and private schools that require daily physical education for all students” and “PA-5: Increase the proportion of adolescents who participate in daily school physical education.”1

The importance of physical education to the physical, cognitive, and social aspects of child development has been acknowledged by many federal, state, and local health and education agencies. Many private entities throughout the country likewise have offered their support and recommendations for strengthening physical education. For example, the Institute of Medicine (2012a), in its report Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation, points to the need to strengthen physical education to ensure that all children engage in 60 minutes or more of physical activity per school day. Similarly, the National Physical Activity Plan (2010), developed by a group of national organizations at the forefront of public health and physical activity, comprises a comprehensive set of policies, programs, and initiatives aimed at increasing physical activity in all segments of schools. The plan is intended to create a national culture that supports physically active lifestyles so that its vision that “one day, all Americans will be physically active and they will live, work, and play in environments that facilitate regular physical activity” can be realized. To accomplish this ultimate goal, the plan calls for improvement in the quantity and quality of physical education for students from prekindergarten through 12th grade through significant policy initiatives at the federal and state levels that guide and fund physical education and other physical activity programs. Specifically, the plan prescribes seven specific tactics presented in Box 5-4.

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BOX 5-4

National Physical Activity Plan: Strategy 2. The National Physical Activity Plan's Strategy 2 is as follows: Strategy 2: Develop and implement state and school district policies requiring school accountability for the quality and quantity of physical (more...)

Medical professional associations, such as the American Cancer Society (ACS), American Diabetes Association (ADA), and American Heart Association (AHA), have long acknowledged the importance of physical education and have endorsed policies designed to strengthen it. A position statement on physical education from the ACS Cancer Action Network, ADA, and AHA (2012) calls for support for quality physical education and endorses including physical education as an important part of a student's comprehensive, well-rounded education program because of its positive impact on lifelong health and well-being. Further, physical education policy should make quality the priority while also aiming to increase the amount of time physical education is offered in schools.

Recently, private-sector organizations—such as the NFL through its Play60 program—have been joining efforts to ensure that youth meet the guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per day. One such initiative is Nike's (2012) Designed to Move: A Physical Activity Action Agenda, a framework for improving access to physical activity for all American children in schools. Although the framework does not focus exclusively on physical education, it does imply the important role of physical education in the action agenda (see Box 5-5).

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BOX 5-5

Nike's Designed to Move: A Physical Activity Action Agenda. Universal access: Design programs that are effective for every child, including those who face the most barriers to participating in physical activity. Age appropriate: Physical activities and (more...)

Finally, in response to First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move initiative, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD) launched the Let's Move In School initiative, which takes a holistic approach to the promotion of physical activity in schools. The purpose of the initiative is to help elementary and secondary schools launch the Comprehensive School Physical Activity Program (CSPAP), which is focused on strengthening physical education and promoting all opportunities for physical activity in school. The CSPAP in any given school is intended to accomplish two goals: (1) “provide a variety of school-based physical activity opportunities that enable all students to participate in at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day” and (2) “provide coordination among the CSPAP components to maximize understanding, application, and practice of the knowledge and skills learned in physical education so that all students will be fully physically educated and well-equipped for a lifetime of physical activity” (AAHPERD, 2012). The five CSPAP components, considered vital for developing a physically educated and physically active child, are physical education, physical activity during school, physical activity before and after school, staff involvement, and family and community involvement (AAHPERD, 2012). Schools are allowed to implement all or selected components.

An AAHPERD (2011) survey indicated that 16 percent of elementary schools, 13 percent of middle schools, and 6 percent of high schools (from a self-responding nationwide sample, not drawn systematically) had implemented a CSPAP since the program was launched. Although most schools sampled (90 percent) provided physical education, the percentage declined through middle school and high school, such that only 44 percent of high schools provided physical education to seniors. In most schools (92 percent), classes were taught by teachers certified to teach physical education.

More than 76 percent of elementary schools provided daily recess for children, and 31 percent had instituted a policy prohibiting teachers from withholding children from participating in recess for disciplinary reasons. In 56 percent of elementary schools that had implemented a CSPAP, physical activity was encouraged between lessons/classes; in 44 percent it was integrated into academic lessons; and in 43 percent the school day started with physical activity programs.

The percentage of schools that offered intramural sports clubs to at least 25 percent of students declined from 62 percent of middle schools to 50 percent of high school for males, and from 53 to 40 percent, respectively, for females. Interscholastic sports were offered in 89 percent of high schools. Among them, approximately 70 percent involved at least 25 percent of the male student population participating and 58 percent involved at least 25 percent of the female student population participating. Sixty-five percent of high schools had “cut” policies, which could limit the enrollment of students in interscholastic sports.


As noted, a high-quality physical education program can help youth meet the guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per day. This increase in physical activity should be balanced with appropriate attention to skill development and to national education standards for quality physical education (see Box 5-6). In a recent literature review, Bassett and colleagues (2013) found that physical education contributes to children achieving an average of 23 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity daily. However, the time spent in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity could be increased by 6 minutes if the physical education curriculum were to incorporate a standardized curriculum such as SPARK (discussed in detail below) (Bassett et al., 2013). Thus, it is possible for physical education to contribute to youth meeting at least half (30 minutes) of their daily requirement for vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity. To help children grow holistically, however, physical education needs to achieve other learning goals when children are active. To this end, physical education programs must possess the quality characteristics specified by NASPE (2007b, 2009b,c) (see Box 5-6). Designing and implementing a physical education program with these characteristics in mind should ensure that the time and curricular materials of the program enable students to achieve the goals of becoming knowledgeable exercisers and skillful movers who value and adopt a physically active, healthy lifestyle.

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BOX 5-6

NASPE's Characteristics of a High-Quality Physical Education Program. All students are required to take physical education. Instructional periods total 150 minutes per week (elementary schools) and 225 minutes per week (middle and secondary schools).

Findings from research on effective physical education support these characteristics as the benchmarks for quality programs. In an attempt to understand what effective physical education looks like, Castelli and Rink (2003) conducted a mixed-methods comparison of 62 physical education programs in which a high percentage of students achieved the state physical education learning standards with programs whose students did not achieve the standards. Comprehensive data derived from student performance, teacher surveys, and onsite observations demonstrated that highly effective physical education programs were housed in cohesive, long-standing departments that experienced more facilitators (e.g., positive policy, supportive administration) than inhibitors (e.g., marginalized status as a subject matter within the school). Further, effective programs made curricular changes prior to the enactment of state-level policy, while ineffective programs waited to make changes until they were told to do so. The teachers in ineffective programs had misconceptions about student performance and, in general, lower expectations of student performance and behavior.

Examples of Evidence-Based Physical Education Curricular Programs

Two large-scale intervention studies—SPARK and CATCH—are discussed in this section as examples of how programs can be structured to increase vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity in physical education classes.

The aim of SPARK, a research-based curriculum, is to improve the health, fitness, and physical activity levels of youth by creating, implementing, and evaluating programs that promote lifelong wellness. Each SPARK program “fosters environmental and behavioral change by providing a coordinated package of highly active curriculum, on-site teacher training, extensive follow-up support, and content-matched equipment focused on the development of healthy lifestyles, motor skills and movement knowledge, and social and personal skills” (SPARK, 2013).

Research supports the use of SPARK as a platform for improving the quality of physical activity instruction in schools. The SPARK curriculum has demonstrated the ability to improve student activity levels, increase the number of minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity for students, and provide sustainable and positive change in a school district (Myers-Schieffer and Thomas, 2012). In one study, researchers found that “the children were positive about this specific curriculum. This is gratifying because one of the goals of the program was to engender positive feeling in the students toward physical activity” (McKenzie et al., 1994, p. 213). In another study, a SPARK intervention is credited with exposing students to an increase in motor skills drills, which in turn led to a higher level of manipulative motor skills acquisition (McKenzie et al., 1998). As a result of improved activity levels, students who participated in the SPARK curriculum improved their times in the 1-mile run and sit-up tests (Sallis et al., 1997). Finally, System for Observing Fitness Instruction Time (SOFIT) classroom observations revealed that students in SPARK classes increased their time spent in vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per class from 17.8 to up to 40.2 minutes compared with students in non-SPARK classes, who engaged in 17.8 minutes of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity per class. Teachers involved in the SPARK intervention offered increased levels of fitness promotion and provided students with an increased amount of general instruction and increased minutes of attention per week (McKenzie et al., 1997; Myers-Schieffer and Thomas, 2012).

The CATCH program teaches children in grades K-8 how to be healthy throughout their lifetimes through a coordinated approach that involves engaging the community, families, and educators to work together. The goal of CATCH is to impact children's health behaviors positively, improve the school health environment, and influence and change school health policies and practices in order to reduce and eliminate health risk factors and risk-related behaviors of students (Perry et al., 1990). CATCH significantly increases the physical activity levels of students during physical education class and provides a wide range of learning experiences for students of all abilities.

CATCH began as a clinical trial from 1991 to 1994 in four regional sites: Tulane University in New Orleans; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis; and the University of Texas in Houston. The participants were elementary school children in grades 3 through 5 and included children from multiethnic backgrounds. Upon completion of the main trial, CATCH had succeeded in producing positive and lasting changes in children's behaviors, including decreasing fat consumption and increasing physical activity (Luepker et al., 1996). The changes were maintained for 3 years postintervention (Nader et al., 1999).

National Standards

Because physical education is part of the curriculum in schools, its quality should be judged only by whether and to what extent children have learned and benefited from it. In a landmark document on learning goals, Moving into the Future: National Standards for Physical Education, NASPE (2004) proposes six student learning standards specifying both conceptual and behavioral characteristics that a physically educated person must possess and display (see Box 5-7). These characteristics encompass knowledge, skill, behavior, and confidence critical to the development and maintenance of health and to the enjoyment of a physically active, healthful lifestyle.

Certified Physical Education Specialists as the Main Teaching Force

If standards are the gauge for quality, teachers make the difference in a particular school in terms of the extent to which students can achieve the standards. Research has made clear that certified physical education specialists can provide more and longer opportunities for students to meet physical activity guidelines compared with classroom teachers trained to teach physical education (McKenzie et al., 2001). Moreover, when teachers are taught strategies to encourage vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity in physical education class, a significant increase in physical activity can be expected (Lonsdale et al., 2013). The role of certified physical education specialists in health-enhancing physical education has become increasingly critical (McKenzie, 2007). The evidence is unequivocal regarding the need for a continued effort to train physical education specialists and the need for schools to continue to employ them as the main teaching force designing and implementing health-enhancing physical education programs to the fullest extent.

Aside from serving as the instructional leader for physical education, physical education specialists can serve as expert resources for classroom teachers in the implementation of classroom physical activity breaks and recess (discussed in detail in Chapter 6). Their expertise in age-appropriate physical activity helps ensure that students are participating in activities that are fun and engaging. Additionally, as the catalyst for a healthy school environment, the physical education specialist can assist in the design and delivery of intramural programs provided before and after school, as well as serve as a community outreach specialist for onsite activity partnerships. For physical education specialists interested in a more formal role as a physical activity leader at their school, NASPE has developed a director of physical activity certification program.

It is a commonly held notion of society that to maintain the quality of education, schools should hire teachers certified to teach in the subject matter areas in which they are licensed. Unfortunately, in the United States, not all physical education classes are taught by certified physical education specialists. Indeed, 68 percent of elementary schools allow classroom teachers (generalists) to teach physical education (NASPE, 2012). Certification or licensure of middle/junior high school and high school physical education teachers is required in only 82 percent and 90 percent of states (NASPE, 2012), respectively. Only 37 states (72 percent) have a requirement for professional development and continuing education hours/credit for physical education teachers to maintain or renew their certification, with renewal time ranging from 3 to 5 years (NASPE, 2012). Twenty-eight states (55 percent) allow temporary/emergency certificates to teach physical education that are valid for 1 to 3 years (NASPE, 2012). The basic requirements for emergency certification include a bachelor's degree in teaching or in any area except physical education. Only 31 states (60 percent) support physical education teachers going through the national board certification process, and only New York requires each school district to have a licensed physical education specialist serving as a physical education coordinator (NASPE, 2012).

Preservice Education for Teachers

Teaching physical education to children effectively and safely requires specific knowledge about children and their physical/mental development, body composition (anatomy) and functions (physiology and biomechanics), and motor skills development and acquisition. In addition, teaching physical education requires substantial knowledge and skill in pedagogy—the science and art of teaching. Box 5-8 lists the NASPE standards for beginning physical education teachers who have completed a bachelor's teacher training program and those who have completed advanced (master's-level) training.

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BOX 5-8

National Association for Sport and Physical Education Standards for Beginning Physical Education Teachers. Scientific and theoretical knowledge: Physical education teacher candidates know and apply discipline-specific scientific and theoretical concepts (more...)

These standards are accompanied by measurement rubrics (unacceptable, acceptable, and target, with target being exemplary) developed jointly by NASPE and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) for evaluating physical education teacher education programs across the country (the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico). NCATE identified a total of 133 physical education teacher education programs as “nationally recognized.” The committee was unable to determine how many programs nationwide have met the minimum standards (not at the nationally recognized level) or locate reliable information on the total number of physical education teacher education programs. A Web search using the term “physical education” resulted in two different but relatively reliable statistics: 720 (College Board, 2013) and 1,945 (Peterson's, 2013). But the data sources did not distinguish between physical education teaching majors and other kinesiology concentrations (e.g., sports medicine, exercise physiology/fitness). Statistics on the number of physical education teacher education programs and their quality based on the NASPE standards are needed.

The current wave of effort to curb physical inactivity among youth has begun to influence teacher education programs. According to a national survey study (Kulinna et al., 2010), current teacher candidates believe that helping K-12 students become physically active and fit is the first priority of physical education, followed by helping them actualize their own goals, develop motor skills, and become responsible. These data appear to suggest that physical education teacher education programs are beginning to turn from a traditionally sports- and skills-centered model to a more comprehensive, physical activity– and health-centered model. This change is important in that the role of both current and future physical education teachers extends beyond merely teaching their classes to advancing public health goals (McKenzie, 2007).

In many universities, however, teacher education programs in physical education have either been reduced or eliminated because of the decline in physical education requirements, which has resulted in a decrease in the number of physical education teachers being employed. Concomitantly, physical education teacher education programs are experiencing an unprecedented crisis. A recent report indicates that, in school year 2008–2009, only 23 doctorate-granting kinesiology departments offered doctoral programs that were training future teacher educators (Boyce and Rikard, 2011a). A total of 140 doctoral students were receiving training offered by 114 professors (including part-time), and 11 percent of those professors were planning to retire. Boyce and Rikard (2011a) report that in the past 13 years, 479 doctoral students graduated as physical education teacher educators—36.8 each year on average—89 percent of whom were able to find positions in colleges and universities. During the same period, 61 positions were open, only 39 of which were filled (64 percent), with an applicant pool of 38 candidates with earned degrees and 13 who completed the doctoral course-work but did not complete the dissertation research (Boyce and Rikard, 2011b). Clearly there is a shortage of physical education teacher educators in higher education institutions. Because of a lack of national tracking data on physical education graduates, the extent to which the teacher educator shortage has impacted and will impact the need to supply quality physical education teachers to the nation is unclear.

Professional Development

In all educational settings, professional development for teachers and administrators is a continuous process of acquiring new knowledge and skills that relate to an educator's profession or academic subject area, job responsibilities, or work environment. Professional development is essential for improving classroom instruction and student achievement (Ball and Cohen, 1999; Cohen and Hill, 2000). Through a variety of delivery methods, professional development activities may include credit or noncredit courses, classroom or online venues, workshops, seminars, teleconferences, and webinars, with the ultimate goal of improving the delivery of instruction to enhance student achievement.

Yoon and colleagues (2007) assert that a strong link exists among professional development, teacher learning and practice, and student achievement. Figure 5-1, which aligns with the research on effective professional development (Kennedy, 1998; Loucks-Horsley and Matsumoto, 1999; Cohen and Hill, 2000; Garet et al., 2001; Fishman et al., 2003; Guskey and Sparks, 2004), illustrates how (1) professional development enhances teacher knowledge and skills, (2) better knowledge and skills improve classroom teaching, and (3) improved teaching raises student achievement.

FIGURE 5-1. Logic model of the impact of professional development on student achievement.


Logic model of the impact of professional development on student achievement.

The most impactful statement of government policy on the preparation and professional development of teachers was the 2002 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Whitehurst, 2002), known as the No Child Left Behind Act. While Title I of the act places highly qualified teachers in the classroom, Title II addresses the same goal by funding professional development for teachers. The importance of quality professional development is well documented in the act.

Professional development, according to the No Child Left Behind Act, should be offered to improve teachers' knowledge of the subject matter they teach, strengthen their classroom management skills, advance their understanding and implementation of effective teaching strategies, and build their capabilities to address disparities in education. The act states that high-quality professional development programs should have the characteristics listed in Box 5-9.

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BOX 5-9

Characteristics of a High-Quality Professional Development Program. It is sustained, intensive, and content-focused to have a positive and lasting impact on classroom instruction and teacher performance. It is aligned with and directly related to state (more...)

Although there is a substantial literature on professional development, only a few high-quality studies relate teachers' professional development experiences to student outcomes. Recommendations for high-quality professional development tend to emphasize the importance of intense, content-focused experiences, as well as opportunities for peer collaboration and structured induction experiences for new teachers. Wiley and Yoon (1995) and Kennedy (1998) suggest that teaching practice and student achievement are likely to improve when professional development is focused on academic content and curriculum that are aligned with standards-based reform.

Kulinna (2012) used Guskey and Sparks' (2004) Model of Teacher Change to determine whether students' physical activity and BMI changed after their teacher underwent a 1-year professional development program. Significant increases in students' physical activity levels were found, but no significant changes in BMI. Looking at the effect of professional development on changes in behavior among physical education teachers, Martin and colleagues (2008) found that, following a variety of professional development experiences and follow-up sessions, teachers showed increases in their efficacy in attaining motor skills objectives, physical activity and fitness knowledge objectives, and personal and social objectives. These results lend support to the value of professional development in enhancing teachers' perceptions of self-efficacy for teaching the curriculum. McCaughtry and colleagues (2006) explored the factors that make teacher professional development successful and what success might mean in terms of teachers' instructional practices and feelings about change. Results indicated that after teachers completed professional development the resources they gained enabled them to improve their instruction by teaching more content, maximizing student learning opportunities, teaching diverse learners, teaching to development, and increasing classroom safety.

Learning Forward (formerly known as the National Staff Development Council) provides research-based guidelines to assist districts in aligning local professional development programs with qualitative standards. Its Standards for Professional Learning were revised in 2011 and are guided by the relationship between professional learning and student results (see Box 5-10). According to Learning Forward (2012):

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BOX 5-10

Standards for Professional Learning. Learning communities: Professional learning that increases educator effectiveness and results for all students occurs within learning communities committed to continuous improvement, collective responsibility, and (more...)

  • When professional learning is standards based, it has greater potential to change what educators know, are able to do, and believe.
  • When educators' knowledge, skills, and dispositions change, they have a broader repertoire of effective strategies to use in adapting their practices to meet performance expectations and students' learning needs.
  • When educator practices improve, students have a greater likelihood of achieving results.
  • When student results improve, the cycle repeats for continuous improvement.
  • Professional learning standards provide a foundation on which to design professional learning experiences at the district or school level that will assist educators in acquiring the necessary knowledge, skills, and tools.

As a recognized means of providing physical education teachers with the tools necessary to enhance student achievement, quality professional development should be provided on a regular basis with follow-up support, along with a method for determining its effectiveness in meeting both curricular and pedagogical standards. Furthermore, to enhance the fitness achievement of students, school-based professional development should provide instruction on the integration of fitness testing into a curriculum and should include training in protocols, the interpretation and communication of results, and the setting and achievement of fitness goals and recommendations for developing healthy living habits for both students and their parents (IOM, 2012a).


Instructional opportunities for physical activity and physical education are mandated by most states. In comparison with data prior to 2006, more states have developed mandates for physical education at both the elementary and secondary school levels. However, most mandates lack a specified time allocation that ensures meeting the NASPE recommendation of 150 and 225 minutes per week for elementary and secondary schools, respectively (McCullick et al., 2012), despite the fact that physical education has been considered a cornerstone for developing schoolwide multicomponent interventions to address the issue of physical inactivity in schools. Some obstacles to the implementation of quality physical activity are listed in Box 5-11.

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BOX 5-11

Obstacles to Implementation of Quality Physical Education. Class periods dedicated to physical education are declining at all school levels. Existing discrepancies between policy and implementation with respect to specific time allocation contribute to (more...)

According to Title IX of the No Child Left Behind Act (Part A Sec 9101–11), core academic subjects include “English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography.” If physical education were designated as a core academic subject, it would receive much-needed policy attention that would enhance its overall quality with respect to content offerings, instruction, and accountability. In support of the inclusion of physical education as a core subject, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) reintroduced the Promoting Health for Youth Skills in Classrooms and Life (PHYSICAL) Act on February 27, 2013, to support and encourage the health and well-being of elementary and secondary school students.

With physical education not being considered a core subject, and amid growing concern regarding the increase in childhood obesity and physical inactivity, several national studies and reports have emphasized the importance of implementing state statutes, laws, and regulations both mandating time requirements for physical education and monitoring compliance. Yet although several national governmental, nongovernmental, private industry, and public health organizations have recommended specific day and time/minute requirements for physical education, no standardized state policy has emerged.

Analysis of State Statutes and Administrative Codes

In the United States, school policies on curriculum and school-based activities are determined by local education agencies according to state laws governing educational activities. Decisions about what to teach, who will teach it, and what level of resources will be provided are made by the state, county or district, and school administration. To better understand the status of state statutes, administrative codes, and policies impacting physical education in schools, the committee analyzed NASBE's State School Health Policy Database (NASBE, 2012; [accessed February 1, 2013]). Of importance to this analysis is the distinction made between state statutes and administrative codes, which accords with the definition proffered by Perna and colleagues (2012): “At the state level, the 2 primary official public policy levers referred to as ‘codified law’ used for developing school-based physical education policy are 1) statutory laws (laws enacted by the given State legislature); and 2) administrative laws (rule and regulations by state executive branch agencies, such as the Department of Education)” (p. 1594). A second point to note is that in descriptions of physical education graduation requirements, it is impossible to differentiate among “credit,” “Carnegie unit,” and “course” so as to determine the exact time requirements for graduation.

Using the NASBE database, the committee performed an overall analysis of policies on physical education and physical activity of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The analysis revealed that 45 states (88 percent) mandate physical education; 22 states (23 percent) require it with mandatory minutes, while 25 states (49 percent) have no mandatory minutes and 4 (0.07 percent) leave the required number of minutes up to local decision makers. A majority of states allow for waivers or substitutions for physical education (see the discussion below). Fitness assessment is required in 15 states (29 percent), and other curricular assessments are required in 4 states (0.07 percent). Twenty-six states (53 percent) require physical education grades to be included in a student's grade point average. Forty-three states (84 percent) require some degree of physical education for high school graduation, with a range of 0.5 to 3.75 credits. One state (0.02 percent) requires K-12 physical education but does not require 4 years of physical education for high school graduation.

Although no federal policies requiring physical education presently exist, the above evidence shows that the majority of states require physical education. However, the number of days and time required vary greatly by state and local school district, as does the amount of physical education required for high school graduation. Given the reduced time for physical activity in school through recess, and absent the implementation of stronger policies, schools have not only the opportunity but also the responsibility to nurture in youth the skills, knowledge, and confidence to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle. The consensus among states indicated by the mandates for physical education summarized above, together with the discrepancies in specific policies, may suggest the need for general guidelines or a federal-level mandate that can serve to guide a collective effort to address the prevalence of childhood inactivity and obesity.

Policies That Support Physical Education

In addition to policies that directly require offering physical education in schools, other policies support physical education opportunities in schools. In 2004 the U.S. government issued a mandate, under the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act of 2004, requiring school districts that receive funds under this act to establish local school wellness policies. These policies were to include provisions for physical activity and healthy eating, thus expanding schools' responsibility for providing physical activity to school-age children. The enactment of this mandates made schools “the central element in a community system that ensures that students participate in enough physical activity to develop healthy lifestyles” (Pate et al., 2006, p. 1215). Several government agencies and organizations have recommended embedding a specific number of days and minutes of physical education into each school's or district's wellness policy. Although school districts are required to include goals for physical activity in their local school wellness policies, they are not required to address physical education specifically.

Policies That Hinder Physical Education

Some policies have contributed to the substantial reduction in the opportunities for school-age children to be physically active, such as by shortening or eliminating physical education classes. These reductions can be attributed to budget cuts and increased pressure for schools to meet academic standards imposed by the federal government.

No Child Left Behind Act

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires that states develop assessment and accountability measures to verify performance improvements in the subject areas of reading and mathematics (P.L. No. 107-110, Section 115). Specifically, federal funding is now dependent on schools making adequate progress in reading and mathematics. No Child Left Behind requires all public schools receiving federal funding to administer statewide standardized annual tests for all students. Schools that receive Title I funding through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 must make adequate yearly progress in test scores (e.g., each year 5th graders must do better on standardized tests than the previous year's 5th graders). If required improvements are not made, schools are penalized through decreased funding. If a school produces poor results for 2 consecutive years, improvement plans must be developed for the school. If a school does not make adequate progress for 5 consecutive years, a full restructuring of the school is mandated.

Under the act, physical education, music, and art are considered “nonessential” subjects and are not a main focus of the school learning environment. In response to the act, schools have devoted more time in the school day to instruction in reading and mathematics. Since the act was passed, 62 percent of elementary schools and 20 percent of middle schools have increased instructional time in reading/language arts and mathematics (Center on Education Policy, 2008). Unfortunately, 44 percent of school administrators reported that these increases in instructional time for reading and mathematics were achieved at the expense of time devoted to physical education, recess, art, music, and other subjects (Center on Education Policy, 2007, 2008) (see Table 5-2).

TABLE 5-2. Changes in Time Allocation in Elementary Schools Since 2001–2002.


Changes in Time Allocation in Elementary Schools Since 2001–2002.

The emphasis on high-stakes testing and pressure for academic achievement in the core subjects has had unintended consequences for other subjects throughout the school day. In developing master schedules, school site administrators have been forced to make difficult decisions regarding the allotment of time for “nonessential” subjects. The average reduction in instructional time in these “nonessential” subjects has been 145 minutes per week. As discussed earlier, however, no evidence suggests that physical education and physical activity have a negative effect on student achievement or academic outcomes (CDC, 2010). On the contrary, positive academic-related outcomes (e.g., improved on-task classroom behavior, cognitive development, academic performance) have been associated with physical education and physical activity (see Chapter 4).

The Center on Education Policy (2007) conducted an analysis of 2006–2007 survey data from 349 school districts on the amount of time devoted to specific subjects to determine the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act. Shifts in instructional time toward English language arts and mathematics and away from other subjects were relatively large in a majority of school districts that made these types of changes. Sixty-two percent of districts reported increasing time in elementary schools in English language arts and/or mathematics since 2001–2002. A higher proportion of urban districts (76 percent) than rural districts (54 percent) reported such increases.

Districts that increased instructional time for English language arts and/or mathematics did so by 43 percent on average. Districts that also reduced instructional time in other subjects reported total reductions of 32 percent, on average. Eight of 10 districts that reported increasing time for English language arts did so by at least 75 minutes per week, and more than half (54 percent) did so by 150 minutes or more per week. Among districts that reported adding time for mathematics, 63 percent added at least 75 minutes per week, and 19 percent added 150 minutes or more per week.

Most districts that increased time for English language arts or mathematics also reported substantial cuts in time for other subjects or periods, including social studies, science, art and music, physical education, recess, and lunch. Among the districts that reported both increasing time for English language arts or mathematics and reducing time in other subjects, 72 percent indicated that they reduced the time for one or more of these other subjects by a total of at least 75 minutes per week. For example, more than half (53 percent) of these districts cut instructional time by at least 75 minutes per week in social studies, and the same percentage (53 percent) cut time by at least 75 minutes per week in science (Center on Education Policy, 2007).

Districts that reported an increase in instructional time for elementary school English language arts spent an average of 378 minutes per week on this subject before No Child Left Behind was enacted. After the act became law, they spent 520 minutes per week. The average increase for English language arts was 141 minutes per week, or a 47 percent increase over the level prior to the act (Center on Education Policy, 2007; see district survey items 18 and 19 in Table IT-18A). Table 5-3 shows the specific amounts of time cut from various subjects in districts that reported decreases.

TABLE 5-3. Time Cut from Subjects or Periods in Districts Reporting Decreases in Instructional Time.


Time Cut from Subjects or Periods in Districts Reporting Decreases in Instructional Time.

Districts with at least one school identified as “in need of improvement” under the act were far more likely than districts not in need of improvement to decrease time in certain subjects so as to devote more time to English language arts and mathematics (78 versus 57 percent). For example, 51 percent of districts with a school in need of improvement reported decreased time in social studies, compared with 31 percent of districts with no school in need of improvement (Center on Education Policy, 2007).

Exemptions from Physical Education Requirements

The 2012 Shape of the Nation Report includes documentation of the multiple reasons students may be exempt from physical education classes. Thirty-three states permit school districts or schools to allow students to substitute other activities for physical education. The most common substitutions are Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), inter-scholastic sports, marching band, cheerleading, and community sports. Twenty-eight states allow schools and school districts to grant exemptions/waivers from physical education time or credit requirements. Reasons for exemptions/waivers include health, physical disability, religious belief, and early graduation; six states leave the reasons to the local schools or school districts. Although it would seem reasonable that some substitution programs such as JROTC or cheerleading might accrue physical activity comparable to that from physical education, these programs do not necessarily offer students opportunities to learn the knowledge and skills needed for lifelong participation in health-enhancing physical activities. Research on the impact of exemptions/waivers from physical education is lacking. No evidence currently exists showing that students receive any portion of the recommended 60 minutes or more of vigorous- or moderate-intensity physical activity through substituted activities sanctioned by their schools.


Barriers other than the policies detailed above hinder efforts to improve and maintain high-quality physical education. This section reviews these barriers, along with some solutions for overcoming them.


Morgan and Hanson (2008) classify barriers that hinder schools from implementing quality physical education programs as either institutional (outside the teacher's control) or teacher related (arising from teacher behavior). Table 5-4 lists institutional and teacher-related as well as student-related barriers identified by various authors.

TABLE 5-4. Barriers to the Delivery of Physical Education and Physical Activity Programs to Primary and Secondary School Students.


Barriers to the Delivery of Physical Education and Physical Activity Programs to Primary and Secondary School Students.

Dwyer and colleagues (2003) examined Toronto teachers' perspectives on why children were not engaged in daily physical education. They identified three categories of barriers: lower priority for physical education relative to other subjects, lack of performance measures for physical activity, and lack of sufficient infrastructure. Jenkinson and Benson (2010) surveyed 270 secondary school physical education teachers in Victoria, Australia, and asked them to rank order the barriers they perceived to providing quality physical education. The results are shown in Table 5-5. The institutional barriers listed in this table are similar to those identified for U.S. schools in Table 5-4.

TABLE 5-5. Physical Education Teachers' Ranking of Barriers to Providing Quality Physical Education (PE) in Victorian State Secondary Schools.


Physical Education Teachers' Ranking of Barriers to Providing Quality Physical Education (PE) in Victorian State Secondary Schools.

Jenkinson and Benson (2010) also presented teachers with a list of barriers to student participation in physical education and physical activity in three categories: institutional, teacher-related, and student-related. The teachers were asked to rank the top five barriers they perceived. Results are presented in Table 5-6.

TABLE 5-6. Perceived Barriers to Student Participation in Physical Education and Physical Activity in Victorian State Secondary Schools: Physical Education Teachers' Ranking (from most [“5”] to least [“1”] influential).


Perceived Barriers to Student Participation in Physical Education and Physical Activity in Victorian State Secondary Schools: Physical Education Teachers' Ranking (from most [“5”] to least [“1”] influential).

Finally, Gallo and colleagues (2006) found that the greatest process barriers to assessing students in physical education were grading students on skill levels and abilities; time constraints; class size; and record keeping, especially when assessing students on skills, cognitive knowledge, and fitness.

Two key barriers to physical education identified in the studies summarized above are staffing and funding. These barriers reflect a lack of support structure in schools for quality physical education.


As noted earlier in this chapter, physical education is short staffed. State mandates have placed pressure on schools to preserve instructional resources for the high-stakes tested core subject areas at the expense of non-core subjects. For example, when a state mandates a maximum class size of 20 students per teacher in all core subjects, with noncompliance resulting in some form of penalty, an elementary school with an average of 25 students per teacher is forced to hire additional teachers in these subjects to meet the state mandate. Consequently, the school must shrink its teaching force in noncore subjects, such as physical education, to balance its budget. If noncore classes are to be preserved, their class sizes must increase, with fewer teachers serving more students. As a result, it becomes difficult to implement a quality program, and physical education teachers perceive their programs as being undervalued.


According to the Government Accountability Office report K-12 Education: School-Based Physical Education and Sports Programs (GAO, 2012), school officials cite budget cuts and inadequate facilities as major challenges to providing physical education opportunities for students. Budget cuts have affected schools' ability to hire physical education teachers, maintain appropriate class sizes, and purchase sufficient equipment. As noted earlier, lack of equipment and limited access to facilities are cited as top barriers in the study by Jenkinson and Benson (2010) (see Tables 5-5 and 5-6). Limited budgets have a negative impact on a school's ability to purchase enough physical education equipment to engage all students in increasingly large class sizes and cause physical education teachers to abandon quality evidence-based physical education programs and resort to large-group games and “throw out the ball” activities. Students disengaged as a result of such practices may prefer sedentary activities to more active lifestyles. A NASPE (2009a) survey found that the median physical education budget for physical education programs nationally was $764 per school ($460 per elementary school, $900 per middle school, and $1,370 per high school).

Solutions for Overcoming the Barriers

For many adolescents who have few opportunities to be active outside of the school day, quality physical education becomes the only option for physical activity. For students in large urban communities, physical education classes serve as a safe environment in which to be physically active under adult supervision in a structured environment. For students with disabilities in particular, physical education classes are one of the only outlets for physical activity. For these reasons, it is crucial to overcome the above barriers to quality physical education. Some school districts have found ways to do so and provide robust physical education programs.

The barrier of limited time during the school day can be overcome through creative scheduling that makes use of every minute of the day in a constructive manner. For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools is the fourth largest school district in the United States, in a large urban minority-majority community with large budgetary shortfalls and attention in schools being diverted to academic requirements. Yet the district has always had daily physical education in its elementary schools taught by a certified physical education teacher. This is accomplished by scheduling physical education during the classroom teacher's planning time. In addition, students receive school board–mandated recess for either 20 minutes two times per week or 15 minutes three times per week. Figures 5-2 and 5-3 show examples of elementary school teacher schedules that demonstrate how 150 minutes of time for physical education can be incorporated successfully into any master schedule.

FIGURE 5-2. Example of a schedule demonstrating time for 150 minutes per week of physical education.


Example of a schedule demonstrating time for 150 minutes per week of physical education. NOTE: Sample is taken from a teacher schedule in a traditional elementary school. SOURCE: Large Urban Public School District, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

FIGURE 5-3. Example of a schedule demonstrating time for 150 minutes per week of physical education.


Example of a schedule demonstrating time for 150 minutes per week of physical education. NOTES: Sample is taken from a teacher schedule in a combination special education and disabilities (SPED)/Spanish-language elementary class. PE = physical education; (more...)

Other positive examples, identified in the report Physical Education Matters (San Diego State University, 2007), include successful case studies from low-resource California schools. The report acknowledges, however, that advancing such opportunities will require policy changes at the state, district, and local levels. These changes include securing grant funds with which to implement high-tech physical education wellness centers, staff commitment to professional development, administrative support, physical education being made a priority, community support, use of certified physical education teachers, and district support. Identifying the need to reform physical education guided by evidence-based findings, the report concludes that (1) curriculum matters, (2) class size matters, (3) qualified teachers matter, (4) professional development matters, and (5) physical environment matters. If programs are to excel and students are to achieve, delivery of the curriculum must be activity based; class sizes must be commensurate with those for other subject areas; highly qualified physical education specialists, as opposed to classroom teachers, must be hired to deliver instruction; professional development in activity-focused physical education must be delivered; and school physical education facilities, such as playing fields and indoor gym space and equipment, must be available.

A separate report, Physical Education Matters: Success Stories from California Low Resource Schools That Have Achieved Excellent Physical Education Programs (San Diego State University, 2007), notes that when funding from a variety of grant resources, including federal funding, became available, schools were able to transition to high-quality programs using innovative instructional strategies. Those strategies included wellness centers and active gaming, which engaged students in becoming more physically active. Administrative support was found to be a key factor in turning programs around, along with staff commitment and professional development. Having certified physical education teachers and making physical education a priority in the schools were other key factors. External factors further strengthened programs, including having school district support, having a physical education coordinator, and using state standards to provide accountability. Additional ways to overcome the barriers to quality physical education include scheduling time for physical education, ensuring reasonable class size, providing nontraditional physical education activities, making classes more active and fun for all students, and acknowledging the importance of role modeling and personal investment and involvement in participation in physical activity among staff.

Still another way to overcome the barriers to quality physical education is to assist administrative decision makers and policy makers in understanding the correlation between physical education and academic achievement (see Chapter 4). The report Active Education: Physical Education, Physical Activity and Academic Performance by Active Living Research (Trost, 2009) cites evidence that “children who are physically active and fit tend to perform better in the classroom and that daily physical education does not adversely affect academic performance. Schools can provide outstanding learning environments while improving children's health through physical education.” The findings reported include the following (p. 6):

  • “In some cases, more time in physical education leads to improved grades and standardized test scores.”
  • “Physically active and fit children tend to have better academic achievement.”
  • “Evidence links higher levels of physical fitness with better school attendance and fewer disciplinary problems.”
  • “There are several possible mechanisms by which physical education and regular physical activity may improve academic achievement, including enhanced concentration skills and classroom behavior.”
  • “Additional research is needed to determine the impact of physical activity on academic performance among those children who are at highest risk for obesity in the United States, including black, Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Asian-American and Pacific Islander children, as well as children living in lower-income communities.”


Physical education is a formal content area of study in schools, it is standards based, and it encompasses assessment according to standards and benchmarks. Select curriculum-based physical education programs have been described in this chapter to show the potential of high-quality physical education in developing children into active adults. Such models provide the only opportunity for all school-age children to access health-enhancing physical activities. Curriculum models for physical education programs include movement education, which emphasizes the importance of fundamental motor skills competence as a prerequisite for engagement in physical activity throughout the life span; sport education, which emphasizes helping students become skillful players in lifetime sports of their choosing; and fitness education, which imparts physical fitness concepts to students, including the benefits and scientific principles of exercise, with the goal of developing and maintaining individual fitness and positive lifestyle change. The emergence of a technology-focused fitness education curriculum and the new Presidential Youth Fitness Program offer further motivational opportunities for students to engage in lifelong physical activities.

Because quality physical education programs are standards based and assessed, they are characterized by (1) instruction by certified physical education teachers, (2) a minimum of 150 minutes per week for elementary schools and 225 minutes per week for middle and high schools, and (3) tangible standards for student achievement and for high school graduation. Quality professional development programs are an essential component for both novice and veteran teachers to ensure the continued delivery of quality physical education.

An analysis of datasets from NASPE, NASBE, and Bridging the Gap reveals that the implementation of supportive physical education policies varies from state to state and from school to school. Since passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, several studies and reports have identified a decline in physical education resulting from the shifting of time to academic subjects. Because physical education is not a high-stakes tested content area, the implementation of supportive policies often is hindered by other education priorities. Although the above analysis indicates that 30 states (74.5 percent) mandate physical education, most policies do not require specific amounts of instructional time, and more than half allow for waivers or exemptions. In addition, an unintended consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act has been disparities in access to physical education and physical activity opportunities during the school day for Hispanic students and those of lower socioeconomic status. In high school, relying on students to elect physical education after meeting the minimum required credit hours (one credit in all states but one) appears to be unfruitful.

Strengthening of school physical education has received support from the public, health agencies, and parents. Parents recently surveyed expressed favorable views of physical education. Specifically:

  • A majority of parents (54–84 percent) believe that physical education is at least as important as other academic subjects (CDC, 2010).
  • Ninety-one percent believe that there should be more physical education in schools (Harvard School of Public Health, 2003).
  • Seventy-six percent think that more school physical education could help control or prevent childhood obesity (NASPE, 2009a).
  • Ninety-five percent believe that regular daily physical activity helps children do better academically and should be a part of the school curriculum for all students in grades K-12 (NASPE, 2003).

Additionally, many public and private organizations have proposed initiatives aimed at developing a comprehensive school-based strategy centered on curriculum physical education. As the largest institution where children spend more than half of their waking hours on school days, schools can play a pivotal role in increasing students' physical activity levels by providing access for all to quality physical education, along with physical activities throughout the school environment, the subject of Chapter 7.


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Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK201493


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