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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 07/ 9/2010

The problem with linking phys ed to academics

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Sean Slade, director of Healthy School Communities, a program of the ASCD, an educational leadership organization.

By Sean Slade
Student + Health = Academic Improvement.

This equation is inherently correct. Though some educational columnists have downplayed or diminished the effect of physical, mental health and even social/emotional health on academic achievement, including an article by the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews, there is an abundance of evidence to show that students who are healthy will attend school more often, learn better and also do better on academic tests.

Add to this long list of studies and reports recent publications from the Centers for Disease Control and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The above equation also makes common sense. It’s common sense to realize that students who are in pain, hungry, tired or fearful are more likely to be distracted in class and are subsequently less able to learn. Take it one step further and students who are absent from school - often from illness or fear – are even less likely to absorb what is being taught in a classroom where they are not even present.

Many organizations in fact cite this equation as the prime reason for increasing time and funding for health education, PE and access to health services in the school. Again this equation is fundamentally correct.

So what’s wrong with this equation?

It is the premise that the only reason we are improving students’ health and well being, the only reason we want them to feel safe and secure, and the only reason that we want them to get enough physical activity is so they can do better academically.

This is where the equation has a problem.

Student + Health = Academic Improvement ≠ Person ready for society

What we want students to learn and develop is not only what is taught and tested via standardized testing - it is not only academic. In fact ‘academics only’ is not even what businesses and colleges require from students. Recent studies both here and internationally have echoed the need for an expanded view of education, especially at the secondary or high school level.

What we want from schools is preparation of our youth for society, and in order for students to be ready for society we want them to be ‘well-rounded’. We want -- actually we need -- students who are developed not only cognitively, but socially, emotionally, mentally and physically.

Student + Health = A Healthy Student

So this is where we need to change the discussion. We need to transition away from an academic-centric rationale of schools to a whole child, whole person rationale for schools.

Schools should prepare youth for society so we should be discussing how we can best prepare our youth for life in that society, as full members who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged.

A whole child education = a whole person

A conversation that only discusses the merits of the healthy student in terms of academic achievement narrows the debate overly. It allows the discussion of one narrow goal to drown out a fundamental purpose and goal of education, which can be summed up aptly by Neil Postman (The End of Education): “Public education does not serve a public. It creates a public.”


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By Valerie Strauss  | July 9, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Health  | Tags:  benefits of physical education, guest bloggers, health, pe and academics, physical education, physical education and academics, physical education and test scores, sean slade, teaching to the whole child, the whole child  
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Sadly, this is the rationale used for any content area that is not included in standardized testing. As a music teacher, I hear colleagues constantly boast how students who study music score higher on math and reading tests (there are several studies indicating such) and that has always disturbed me that this would be the argument that we have to make to validate study in the arts. How about we say--the arts allow students to use different parts of their brains, or the arts appeal to the emotional health of students? How about the arts are valuable in and of themselves? The same goes for physical education.

Even sadder is the fact that many districts are designing assessments in these content areas--because without them they seem to feel there is no way to effectively evaluate teacher performance. So now p.e. and arts teachers will ultimately do less of what is really valuable, so that they, too, can administer worthless tests to "prove" that they are effective.

Posted by: musiclady | July 9, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Student + Health = Academic Improvement, but
Student + Physical Education does not always equal Health.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | July 9, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

The other thing about P.E. is that it serves as a chance for students to get up and move. Young people are not designed to sit still for 8 hours a day. P.E. is a good time to run around and learn some sport skills.

There must be a correlation between PE and less behavior problems in the other classes.

Any teacher can tell you that after 2 rain days without recess the kids are bouncing around.

Kids need activity. This is so basic that it is absurd not to have it at school.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 9, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I see your point Valerie. Interesting. I have noticed as a language teacher that sometimes, not all the time, the really academically advanced kids do very technically with the foreign language they are learning. But, there are those who miss the point of learning foreign language, to be able to have a conversation or use the language.

It is often the well rounded kids who see language learning as useful. A new code to be deciphered, another way to communicate with friends.

When I began teaching, teachers were supposed to tell students why they were learning what they were learning. "This will help you to translate something from French to English" would be a rationale for learning dictionary skills or to use an online dictionary.

I went back to school for a Master's and took time off from teaching. I was very surprised to find out that teachers were still supposed to give a rationale for learning, but that it was more along the lines of "today we are learning to ______, and you will see something like this on the Final Exam that you will take in the spring."

The whole idea that the subjects are actually useful is lost if we base everything on credits and passing exams. On the other hand, it keeps everyone very focused.

I have noticed a similar idea when grading using a rubric. Students are so used to rubrics now that they cannot just write a paragraph. They want to know exactly what they have to do to get an A. I understand the reasoning behind using rubrics and agree they are more fair than just having some vague criteria, but am often disillusioned when a student is merely trying to get points and doesn't care less about if he understands the material.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 9, 2010 3:00 PM | Report abuse

You're right. We language teachers also brag about how well language students do on standardized tests in reading and math. It is true, but isn't that a little silly, it is better to be able to play a saxophone than to score a few points higher and it is better to be able to have a conversation in French, or Spanish that you couldn't have had without the language.

Ironically, parents are spending big money on music tutors, music lessons, dance lessons, soccer, baseball, football teams etc.

Parents want their kids to be able to do things.

At our elementary school the instrumental music program is so popular that they have to have two concerts because they can't fit in the cafeteria. And you should see the parents beam with pride as their kids squeak through "Ode to Joy". I for one, just love it! I will be forever indebted to our art teacher, instrumental music teacher, gym teacher and music teacher for teaching my kids things I never got to learn.

I am just so thrilled with these programs, but they are way underfunded. The instrumental music is only 1/2 hour a week and the teacher goes to 3 schools.

Posted by: celestun100 | July 9, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, the functions of the mind have always been considered superior to the functions of the body. As a children's physical activity specialist, I often struggle with the need to justify time spent on movement activities. And, yes, sometimes I resort to pointing out that physical activity contributes to "academic learning." After 30 years of beating my head against this wall, I'll use whatever argument I have in my arsenal. But I do agree with Mr. Slade and thank him for this post.

Posted by: raepica1 | July 10, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

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