Commentary | Education

Lessons—Are the Three R’s Crowding Out P.E.?

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Are the Three R’s Crowding Out P.E.?

By Richard Rothstein

UNIVERSITY CITY, Mo. — Over the nine years that Pat Oligschlaeger has taught physical education at Flynn Park Elementary School in this St. Louis suburb, he has seen a marked decline in his pupils’ fitness.

“You can tell just by looking at them” that they are out of shape, he said. “They are sitting in front of TV, not playing at sports.”

His test records show that, for example, in 1993 half his fourth graders could do a pull-up, averaging about five each. This year only a third could do one.

Flynn Park pupils, about half of them black and a third low-income, now get only 100 minutes of weekly physical education, less than when Mr. Oligschlaeger first started here and less than the 30 minutes of daily exercise considered by many experts to be the minimum for good health. Yet even 100 minutes is twice what the State of Missouri requires of its elementary schools.

Nationally, only 29 percent of high school students had daily physical education last year, down from 42 percent in 1991. With the percentage of overweight children doubling in the last 30 years, diseases like adult-onset diabetes, cardiovascular disorders and osteoporosis are diagnosed more often in the young.

Is all this an unintended consequence of raising academic standards? Are schools squeezing in more math by eliminating gym?

Sandra Perlmutter, director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, thinks so. This curricular shift, she says, makes it more likely that a health crisis will develop when today’s inactive youths become adults. And it may be impeding the very learning that educators hope to promote when they schedule more academic time.

Children need exercise to learn. Scientists say it is plausible that by promoting blood flow to the brain, physical activity increases cognitive power. Many teachers believe that adolescents find it harder to concentrate when exercise breaks are not scheduled.

Two years ago, Virginia stopped requiring physical education in elementary and middle schools. In 1996, Massachusetts did so for high schools. By last year, only 61 percent of Massachusetts high school students had gym class even once a week, down from 80 percent five years earlier.
Other states have also eliminated such mandates. They claim to be reflecting the national reform movement to test achievement (“outputs”) rather than specify the number of minutes (“inputs”) spent on each subject. But in practice, students and schools are held accountable for proficiency only in academics, not physical fitness.

This is not the only cause of young people’s excess weight. As Mr. Oligschlaeger noted, more children now sit at home in front of computers and television. And they have more homework. Fewer participate in neighborhood sports, or just run around at play. Government data show that even walking and bicycling by children ages 5 to 15 dropped 40 percent from 1977 to 1995.

Diets, meanwhile, include more fatty fast foods and sugar-loaded soda. Adolescent boys now consume, on average, about 28 ounces of soft drinks daily, almost twice their consumption of 20 years ago. This all contributes to what the surgeon general calls “an obesity epidemic.”

Dinners at fast-food outlets result in part from economic changes (perhaps including welfare reform) that put more mothers in the work force and have more parents working longer hours. If fried and fatty fast foods replace more wholesome meals at home, long- term health risks increase.

Schools themselves also promote poor diets, no matter what they teach in health classes. To raise revenue, schools now negotiate lucrative contracts for soft-drink and chips distributors to place vending machines on school grounds. The arrangement often finances extracurricular activities, but by harming children’s health and cognition, it also handicaps learning.

As with so much in education, such trends hurt minority pupils the most. Black and Hispanic youths have the lowest rates of participation in physical activity, both inside and outside the school, a factor that contributes to a disparity in obesity rates: while 24 percent of white adolescents are obese, the rate is 31 percent for blacks and 30 percent for Hispanics.

This places minority children most at risk for health problems when they become adults, with higher death rates from inactivity. Daily exercise at school is even more important for those who live where outdoor play is unsafe and who are thus kept indoors watching television. Yet these are the very children whose academic achievement is lower and so are now more likely to take extra classes in basic skills, making it more difficult to take gym, even where it is offered as an elective. Requirements to attend after-school remedial classes also reduce opportunities for exercise.

Yes, we want more attention paid to academics. But if children now exercise less when school lets out, preparing adults healthy enough to use academic skills will require more time in gym classes, not less.

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