Is the Extinction of High School Physical Education Inevitable?

By Doolittle, Sarah | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Is the Extinction of High School Physical Education Inevitable?


Doolittle, Sarah, JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


Twenty years ago, JOPERD published a feature on the problems and possibilities of high school physical education. In the introduction, the overarching problem was explained this way: "We have failed to provide an experience that [students] perceive as meaningful ... the sense of mastering something important is denied most students in secondary physical education programs in this country." The author went on to say that we have failed "to explain to our students, their parents, administrators, fellow teachers, and the community what it is that is distinct about what physical education has to offer" (Griffey, 1987, p. 21). In the same feature, Siedentop (1987) described "high school physical education as an endangered species, a subject matter that might become extinct in secondary curricula in America," due to "an almost total lack of expectations for significant outcomes in high school physical education programs" (p. 24).

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In 2007, a generation later, we are suffering the consequences of not having addressed this critical problem in secondary physical education. The 2006 Shape of the Nation report (National Association for Sport and Physical Education & American Heart Association, 2006) found that while 42 states still require high school physical education, only seven states require two or more credits of high school physical education, and only four states require 135 to 225 minutes per week (225 is the recommended minimum). Mandated high school physical education is disappearing fast, and the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) continues to pressure physical education and all non-tested subjects.

Is high school physical education doomed to extinction? There is powerful political support from federal agencies and the medical profession to increase physical activity and physical education for the health and well-being of children and youths, so perhaps it is not too late. Outside of schools, many young adults and families are looking for and spending on programs and professionals that do what physical education does: provide access to and instruction in sport, fitness, adventure, and positive personal and social interaction in physical activity settings. In fact, entrepreneurial physical educators are becoming so numerous that AAHPERD actively seeks to include them explicitly in its organization, conferences, and coalitions, recently proposing a name change to better reflect the diversity of professionals who offer services related to health and physical activity. So if organized and instructional physical activity are still valued by the public, why is high school physical education so vulnerable?

While many assume that external forces (NCLB, budget constraints, even AAHPERD itself) are undermining physical education, my view is that physical education may need to look internally for possibilities. Consider the fact that, despite many changes in society and schooling in the last 20 years, high school physical education classes across the country look surprisingly similar to the programs discussed in the 1987 JOPERD feature, and we still have not addressed the critical problem of setting expectations for achieving significant outcomes. If we hope to prevent the complete extinction of high school physical education, we will need to teach so that students learn and can demonstrate their achievement of important goals, and make sure students, parents, and the community understand the unique contribution we make.

Standards, Assessment, and Accountability

What physical education professionals have now that they did not have in 1987 are state and national standards offering clear, politically viable goals for student achievement, new assessments for evaluation, and a new realization that both students and school districts can be held accountable for student learning and achievement rather than class time spent in a subject area. Though standards and assessment are now a regular part of discussion in physical education, we seem slower to adopt accountability for learning important content.

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