New Research Examines Physical Education in America

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By Morgan Clennin, PhD, MPH, Kaiser Permanente of Colorado, University of South Carolina, and National Physical Activity Plan

School-based physical education (PE) is recommended by the Community Guide as an effective strategy to promote physical activity among youth. Unfortunately, many have speculated that PE exposure has declined precipitously among U.S. students in the past decade. Limited resources and budgets, prioritization of core academic subjects, and several other barriers have been cited as potential drivers of these claims. However, few large-scale studies have explored the merit of these claims – leaving the answers following questions unknown:

Has PE attendance decreased among U.S. students in the past decades?

What policies and practices are in place to support quality PE?

To answer these questions, the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition tasked the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance (NPAPA) to review the available evidence and summarize their findings. The primary objective of this effort was to better understand PE exposure over time to inform national recommendations and strategies for PE.

The NPAPA began by establishing a collaborative partnership with experts in the federal government, industry, and academia. The group analyzed existing national data sources that could be used to examine changes in PE attendance and current implementation of PE policies and practices. These efforts culminated in a final report and two peer-reviewed manuscripts. A summary of the group’s findings are outlined below.

Key Findings:

  • The percentage of US high school students reporting PE attendance DID NOT change significantly between 1991-2015. Learn more at http://physicalactivityplan.org/resources/physicaleducationHas PE attendance had decreased among U.S. students in the past decade? No, PE attendance has not decreased significantly among U.S. high school students – a finding counter to the widely held belief that U.S. students’ PE attendance has decreased over time. Additionally,
    • 1/2 of U.S. high school students did not attend PE classes—which is consistent over the 24-year period studied (1991-2015).
    • The percentage of U.S. high school students reporting PE attendance did not change significantly between 1991 and 2015 for the overall sample or across sex and race/ethnicity subgroup.
    • Daily PE attendance did decrease 16% from 1991 to 1995 then attendance rates remained stable through 2015.
  • What policies and practices are in place to support quality physical education? Only 0.2% of U.S. schools examined were implementing all 7 essential components of PE assessed in SHPPS.
    • > 65% of schools implemented 2-4 of the 7 essential PE policies
    • Implementation of PE policies varied by region, metropolitan status, and school level.
    • Data indicates minority students have been disproportionately affected by cuts to school PE programs during the past two decades.

Recommendations Based on Key Findings:

  • Prioritize efforts to expand collection of surveillance data examining trends in PE attendance among elementary and middle school students.
  • Develop policies to improve PE access for all students in order for PE to contribute to increased physical activity among youth.
  • Adopt policies and programs that prioritize PE to maximize the benefits of PE.
  • Utilize the findings of these efforts to target professional development and technical assistance for PE practitioners.

The Education sector of the NPAP provides evidence-based strategies and tactics that can guide efforts to support the provision of quality PE to all students. More information, and links to the respective manuscripts, can be found on the NPAPA website: http://physicalactivityplan.org/projects/physicaleducation.html

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