To Strengthen Schools, Strengthen PE

The  Washington Post’s “How to Fix Our Schools” manifesto by Michelle Rhee and other education leaders (October 10) overlooked a solution that has been shown to improve student achievement and would ultimately strengthen America: physical education.

Exercise builds muscles, enhances balance and coordination, and guards against heart attack, stroke, osteoporosis, anxiety, and depression. Recent research reveals more good news: Exercise improves the brain’s ability to absorb and retain information.

Yet only five states require physical education in every grade K-12.

Recess is not sufficient. Motor skills, like math skills, must be taught. Through PE, students develop the physical intelligence and confidence they need to make fitness a habit. Lifelong exercisers improve their ability to learn, and improve their chances of being healthy, happy, and economically successful.

A smart nation is a fit nation. When fixing schools, please start by requiring P.E.

Mariah Burton Nelson

Executive Director

American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation

8 Responses to “To Strengthen Schools, Strengthen PE”

  1. Josh Leeger Says:

    Great post, Mariah.

    PE is critical. But not the PE I grew up with – standing around looking at girls in skimpy shorts while the teacher explains what a golf club is.
    Real Physical Education is an education about your physical body – intellectual and kinesthetic – how it works, why, what to do to help it work better…
    You should ask yourself why that isn’t an agenda item for our nation. What happens if we don’t tell people about how their bodies work? What behaviors does that reinforce?
    What happens if we do inform people about their own bodies, and give them knowledge about themselves? What behaviors would that reinforce?
    These questions are important, I think, because they begin to put us in a frame of mind that considers the agenda of the people making decisions about PE (whether, why, and how), which, in turn, allows us to frame an argument that will appeal to those agendas (even if that argument does not agree with them).

    • Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

      Dear Josh,

      Great to hear from you. I’m intrigued by your questions and would welcome your thoughts. Here are mine: When people become “physically intelligent,” they become more committed to healthy behaviors, and more easily resist corporate appeals to eat junk or spend more money and time on superficial beauty than strength and physical grace. So in that sense, teaching kids to understand (and love!) their bodies is subversive. On the other hand, corporate America is well aware (or should be) that health care costs would significantly decrease if we all took better care of our bodies — and those costs hurt all of us (higher premiums, lost productivity, sick and dying loved ones, etc). I’m not so cynical as to think that those who benefit from the medical-industrial complex are actually opposed to health promotion. (Do you?) Meanwhile, fortunately the “new PE” does not have a lot in common with the bad memories many adults share. Modern PE teachers are doing just what we want them to do: giving kids the skills and information they need to become lifelong activity enthusiasts. Some policy makers are unaware of PE’s potential to help kids learn and be healthy and active for life. But I think when they leave PE out of the equation for reform, it’s more a matter of oversight (and financial shortsightedness) than a conspiracy to keep people ignorant. Good questions, though. I’d love to hear more from you (and others) on this subject!

  2. Josh Leeger Says:

    While I don’t think it is “intentional,” I don’t think it is “unintentional” either.

    Policy-makers have to create policy that conforms to societal norms and standards…or risk losing their jobs. One of the norms/standards we have in our country is “specialization.” That is, we value specialization over generalization.

    In PE, this comes to light in the form of a confusion over the purpose and place of “physical education.” Most people associate PE with gym class – playing sports, learning societal values through competitive games, etc.

    To truly be physical education, PE must incorporate instruction in biology, anatomy, physiology, hygiene, health, etc. This seems like a very “general” approach, however.

    Oversight/shortsightedness demonstrate cultural values. What is worthy of oversight is unworthy of sight. By definition.

    How do we make it worthy of sight?

    If we approach policy-makers from the perspective of general educational ideals, we are speaking Greek to them. Instead, our argument has to have a basis in evidence – in the effects of exercise on the body, in the effects of education on productivity, on the money/cost savings in a self-reliant populace.

    Most discussions want to thrust “progressive” idea(l)s on policy-makers entrenched within the status quo. This never works.

    I think the modern state of policy has been to go about the process of creating reform in a backwards-causal manner. Policy-makers (and industry leaders) have begun (since the early 1990’s) to say “the individual must become self-responsible,” and have pulled away funding, structure, and support for individuals (in many arenas).

    This method, though, is like taking a tended field and saying “it’s natural, it can grow on its own,” and then leaving it to its own ends. The field turns into wilderness again. The domesticated plants within it are devoured and most likely do not reappear.

    To inform policy-makers, we must create the case that appeals to them. A “scientific” case. An “evidence-based” case. A financial case. A “productivity” case.

    In the end, it is not subversive. It is cooperative and communicative. We’re just communicating in a way that will get us what we want.

    You, Kwame Brown, and many others have been asking questions like these, and presenting solutions to the PE problem for a long time now. How can we all come together to create a unified message that utilizes the above cases? I.e., that communicates this message in a way that policy-makers will hear it – rather, cannot deny it.

  3. Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

    Hi Josh,

    Thanks for contributing your brainpower to these questions again! I think you’re spot on, as they say in England, about this:


    The weird thing is, these things are EASY. We’ve GOT the stats. There are mountains of evidence proving that exercise has almost countless physical, psychological, and social benefits — and that the obesity crisis (costly, in so many ways) is fundamentally an inactivity crisis.

    But we’ve got a PR problem. All those people like you who have bad memories of PE… it’s hard to change minds.

    We’re trying, though!

    And your framing of the problem helps. Let me go back to the office and keep working on this. 🙂 And the fact that you and MANY others are on our team is a BIG help.

    Actually we might be near a tipping point already, where daily inactivity will soon be perceived as socially unacceptable and as self-defeating as smoking.

    Keep up the good work, and let’s stay in touch!

  4. Dr. Kwame M. Brown Says:

    Josh, thanks for the heads up about this wonderful discussion. Another example of taking people that you know for granted. Mariah, I see you every day, and “forget” to get on your blog. That is fixed now! So happy to know many brilliant people…Anywho…

    I think we have several underlying problems here that contribute to this:

    1. We have an elitist culture – “We’re Number One”
    2. We are obsessed with amounts of things – look no further than the pervasive Presidential Fitness “contests” for that
    3. Agreed on the specialization front, and I think this partially stems from #1, #2. Those wanting to be elite and obsessed with amounts would naturally gravitate toward specialization – easier to measure immediate success or failure.

    Suffice it to say, our choices about P.E. stem from overall features of our culture. When you take a specialized, elitist point of view, you will actually refuse to see evidence of connections between things, the consilience that Edward O. Wilson always speaks of.

    So, while yes, we need better PR within our field (and believe me Josh – Mariah and I among others are literally working overtime on this), we also need the support of a paradigm shift of society at large. That is something we all play a role in –

    Conversations with friends, our actions, our t-shirts (not kidding), our facebook posts, our purchases, our songs, everything matters. Every part of the collective influences every part of the collective. We must take what is important to us, and allow it to pervade every fiber of our existence.

    We must continue to send messages not just about amounts of physical activity as a binary yes or no question, but about the nature (double entendre intended) and inclusiveness of physical PLAY.

    Mariah – on your statement that we are at a tipping point: I believe this as well, and by definition it can tip back the other way. Smoking has made a resurgence in the younger generation 1) because we went too far with forcing a message, 2) we then got lazy with that message.

    Let’s not let the same thing happen with physical intelligence.

  5. Mal Says:

    Excellent post – Education got off track when we decided to worry more about preparing every kid to go to Harvard instead of preparing them for life. Kids can’t have fun anymore becuase they have to obsess about grades, looks, things, and being perfect at everything instead of just enjoying a childhood. The net result is kids turn to self-destructive behaviors to cope with all the pressure. We have to face the fact that schools are failing kids and we need new approaches.

  6. Josh Says:

    Great points…yes, a sea-change is needed…

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