Accountability Comes to Physical Education

As policymakers call on schools to help combat childhood obesity, Education Next takes a close look at an innovative P.E. class that holds students accountable for how long and how hard they work out.

In February, First Lady Michelle Obama launched her “Let’s Move” initiative, which aims to fight childhood obesity by, among other things, increasing physical education. And this spring, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill called the FIT Kids Act that aims to enlist schools in the war against obesity by requiring districts to report what is taking place in P.E. classes.

Are traditional P.E. classes likely to be effective in fighting obesity? In a 2006 article for Education Next , “Not Your Father’s PE,” economists John Cawley, Chad Meyerhoefer, and David Newhouse wrote “requiring more PE seems like a logical response to the childhood obesity epidemic, but will mandating more time in gym classes actually result in more exercise for kids?” They found that “relatively little research has systematically examined how much PE (as it is currently constituted) contributes to weight loss or lowers the risk of obesity, and what little research there is finds no association between PE and weight loss and obesity.” In “Don’t Sweat It,” an article in the same issue that looked at efforts to ramp up physical education classes, Bob Cullen concluded that “simply passing legislation mandating a little more of the same PE just isn’t going to do.”

As students and teachers explain in this video, traditional P.E. classes may not offer students a real workout, particularly when those students are in high school. Students don’t like having to change into gym clothes and get sweaty in the middle of the day. So P.E. teachers may end up grading students based on whether they change into their P.E. clothes.

A report released this spring by the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education found that, while most states require some kind of physical education, few require students to exercise for a specific amount of time.

The 25th Hour P.E. class at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, is different. Students enrolled in the class don’t break a sweat during the school day. Instead, they work out three times a week, before or after school. While the students are jogging, swimming, playing pickup basketball, going to soccer practice, or walking the dog, they wear monitors that track how long they exercise and whether their heart rates are in the target zone. Students meet with a P.E. teacher once a week to download the data from their monitor to her computer and discuss their workouts. Grades are based on how long students keep their heart rates in the target zone.

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