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Physical Education and Green Justice

There is nearly unanimous agreement (97%) among voters polled in California in 2012 that it is important for schools to encourage more physical activity during school hours. In addition, three in four (74%) think that more physical activity during school hours will have a positive effect on academic achievement. Large majorities believe public investments aimed at keeping people healthy pay for themselves in the long run by preventing disease and reducing health care costs, (73%) and think that a comprehensive program to prevent childhood obesity would be worth it even if it increased government spending by billions of dollars (68%). According to a similar 2011 poll, respondents favor physical education in schools as the single most important policy for obesity prevention, across most party and socioeconomic lines. For example, 89% support requiring physical education classes for four years in high school.

California state law requires that public schools provide 200 minutes of physical education every 10 school days in elementary schools, and 400 minutes in middle and high schools. Yet half the districts audited from 2004 to 2009 did not comply, including the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LAUSD, the largest district in California and the second largest in the nation, serves more than 660,000 K-12 students in over 900 schools. The district is made up of 92% students of color, and 74% are low-income (qualify for free or reduced price meals). Obesity rates have been persistently higher than those of nearby districts, and 75% of district students failed to pass all portions of the state Fitnessgram test during the 2008-09 school year.

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In response to an organizing and legal campaign, the district adopted a policy in 2009 requiring schools to comply with physical education laws and guidelines, as well as equal justice laws.

The California Courts of Appeal, in an unrelated case, later held that elementary schools must comply with the 200 minutes requirement, and that parents and students have the right to sue the school district for failure to comply.

The campaign and policy rest on social science evidence about the value of physical education. For example:

  • Physical education is deficient in California schools, especially in elementary schools.
  • Physical education is particularly deficient for less affluent students and racial and ethnic groups at high risk for overweight and obesity.
  • Improving physical education can improve student health, academic performance and concentration, and decrease disruptive behavior.
  • Physical education may be especially important for girls, who tend to be less active.

    Elementary school students in districts that did not comply with the minutes requirements were more likely to be Hispanic or black, and less likely to be white or Asian. Schools in compliant districts included fewer low income students, according to a recent study.

    A research team including Samuels & Associates and The City Project has monitored compliance with the physical education policy in Los Angeles over the past two years. There has been some progress to improve physical education. According to one stakeholder, "It's a joy to see kids be out doing different things like learning rules for four square, hopscotsch and doing different relays at basketball. I love seeing the variety that teachers are now using from the PE sessions we did at staff meetings."

    Norwood Elementary School PE class | Photo by Tim Wagner for Partnership for the Public's Health

    Opportunities remain to do better. The monitoring provides evidence that can be translated to improve physical education anywhere.

    1. The message that state law requires schools to provide physical education needs to be communicated effectively by public officials to schools, parents, students and the community.

    Statewide, Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson, Attorney General Kamala Harris, and Governor Jerry Brown need to speak up on behalf of student health and physical education. Locally, the district superintendent, board of education and staff need to continue to drive the message home. Strategic media campaigns like Team California for Healthy Kids and Let's Move California need to emphasize that physical education is good for students, and good law.

    "The message you send to the public and parents if you don't enforce the law is that children don't matter. Standing up for children by actively enforcing the law on their behalf was crucial," according to one stakeholder.

    2. Schools need the resources to provide quality education including physical education. The need for physical education is one more reason to support ballot measures to raise taxes to support quality education.

    3. Continued monitoring is necessary to ensure physical education compliance. Parents, students and teachers are in the best position to monitor physical education in the long term, and should be educated, engaged and empowered to do so.

    4. All schools must meet the physical education minutes requirements under state law.

    5. Moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) should be increased to 50% or more of class time. This can be done through teacher training, or explicit requirements in school policy or state law. The percent of class time spent in MVPA in middle and high schools was substantially higher compared to elementary schools, but still falls short of the recommended 50% in MVPA.

    6. Teacher training helps. Professional development in activity focused physical education should be one of the highest priorities because it is supported by substantial evidence. In the monitoring, secondary school classes where MVPA was higher were commonly were taught by teachers with specialized physical education training, while elementary classes were not.

    7. While there has been some reduction in class size, classes need to be smaller. The persistence of classes with more than 45 students raises concerns because smaller classes contribute to physical activity.

    8. Disparities in physical education and health for students of color and low income students need to be addressed directly. The district policy directly addresses the need to provide physical education for all students to address unfair disparities. State and national efforts should too.

    The campaign has broadened awareness of the value of physical education. Even after the California Court of Appeal held that schools must meet the physical education minutes requirements and can be held liable for failure to do so, however, not all schools in the district or in California comply. The people have spoken through the polls. The legislature and the court have spoken. Let's provide our children the physical education and quality of life they deserve.


    Top: Norwood Elementary School PE class. Photo by Tim Wagner for Partnership for the Public's Health

    About the Author

    I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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