Evaluating the Sustainability of SPARK Physical Education: A Case Study of Translating Research into Practice

By Dowda, Marsha; Sallis, James F. et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, March 2005 | Go to article overview
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Evaluating the Sustainability of SPARK Physical Education: A Case Study of Translating Research into Practice


Dowda, Marsha, Sallis, James F., McKenzie, Thomas L., Rosengard, Paul, Kohl, Harold W.,, III, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


Dissemination and sustainability of evidence-based physical education programs (PE) has been studied rarely. The sustainability of a health-related PE program (SPARK) was independently evaluated in 111 elementary schools in 7 states. Surveys were mailed to schools that had received SPARK curriculum books, training, and follow-up (response rate = 47%). Up to 80 % of schools that adopted SPARK PE reported sustained use up to 4 years later. Schools using SPARK had more frequent PE classes. Sustained use was related to support from the principal, not previously having a standard PE program, having adequate equipment, and teachers being physically active. Program sustainability was similar in advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Evidence-based PE programs can be sustained up to 4 years.

Key words: health, curricula, program dissemination, program evaluation

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Physical education (PE) programs that emphasize health-related physical activity are a critical component of comprehensive strategies to promote the health of young people through regular physical activity (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], 1997; Pate & Hohn, 1994; Sallis & McKenzie, 1991; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2001). Based on a systematic review of evidence, the Guide to Community Preventive Services (Kahn et al., 2002) "strongly recommends" school-based, activity-focused PE as an effective method of improving physical activity and fitness. Healthy People 2010 (USDHHS, 2000) identified improving PE as a national health objective. Numerous organizations recommend health-related PE (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2000, American College of Sports Medicine, 1988; American Heart Association, 1995, USDHHS, 1996).

Several reviews have documented the effectiveness of enhanced PE (Almond & Harris, 1998; Resnicow & Robinson, 1997; Stone, McKenzie, Welk, & Booth, 1998; Kahn et al., 2002). However, the research and authoritative recommendations have not produced clear improvements in policy and practice related to PE in the United States (Burgeson, Wechsler, Brener, Young, & Spain, 2001; Pate et al., 1995). Observational studies of PE classes, particularly in elementary schools, show low levels of physical activity (McKenzie et al., 1995; Simons-Morton, Taylor, Snider, Huang, & Fulton, 1994), poor quality of instruction (Faucette, McKenzie, & Patterson, 1990), and a quantity of PE class time that fails to meet state standards (McKenzie et al., 1995; McKenzie, Sallis, Kolody, & Faucette, 1997). PE appears to be an example of the failure of research to affect practice.

The public health effect of any intervention depends not only on its effectiveness but also on the extent of its implementation and sustainability (Oldenburg & Parcel, 2002). The diffusion of health promotion innovations consists of five phases (Oldenburg, Hardcastle, & Kok, 1997). The phases are: (a) "innovation development" in which the new program is developed and tested, (b) "dissemination," in which availability of the innovation is communicated widely, (c) "adoption," which refers to the uptake of the program by the target audience, (d) "implementation," in which users, in this case schools and teachers, actually put the program into practice, and (e) "maintenance," which refers to the sustained use of the innovation. In this phase, both the quantity (e.g., percentage of teachers using the program regularly) and quality of implementation (e.g., adherence to the curriculum) need to be considered. A literature review revealed that only 1% of health promotion articles could be considered diffusion research, and 6% were classified as institutionalization or policy change studies (Oldenburg, Sallis, French, & Owen, 1999). Thus, there is a need for more evaluation of the diffusion and long-term sustainability of health promotion programs.

The diffusion efforts of SPARK PE presented an opportunity for a case study evaluation of translating a research-based innovation into practice.

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