The Challenge of Implementing Physical Education Mandates

Author’s Note: This post is written about Oregon’s PE Law, Senate Bill 4, and the challenges school districts face when trying to implement mandates.  Furthermore, the motivation was inspired by a newspaper article in the East Oregonian that was shared on the SHAPE America Facebook page on 8/31/19.  You can read the original article by CLICKING HERE.

Ever since I entered the teaching profession in 2008, a Physical Education law has been considered the utopian policy dream for physical educators everywhere.  For years, the state of Illinois was elevated to a pedestal for the work they had done and what was featured in the book SPARK.  Unbeknownst to many, Oregon has had a state physical education law as policy since 2007.  House Bill 3141, as it was titled then, was considered a huge achievement for the state.  In short, it mandated 150 minutes per week of physical education in grades K-5 and 225 minutes per week of physical education in grades 6-8.  The bill gave school districts 10 years to plan, prepare and to be in compliance.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t a school district in Oregon who didn’t keep kicking the can down the road and hope for days where the law would eventually go away.  I can speak to this personally because I began sitting in on meetings with stakeholders at the state level as far back as 2015 to plan for implementation.  Compromises were made and full implementation was pushed back again and a phase in model was agreed to.  This meant that over a 5 year process, school districts could slowly phase in to the required minutes.  The 2019-20 school year is the first year of this phase in with elementary schools K-5 needing to be at 120 minutes.  If schools are not in compliance, they do run the risk of having their state funding being withheld (this law has teeth!).  This is where things have become interesting.

Over the past several years I have had numerous passionate conversations with physical educators all over the country about physical education mandates and required minutes for physical education.  In its most purest form, we all agree with the same general idea:

Physical education should be daily.  Every student, in every classroom, in every school, in every school district, in every state should have access to daily physical education at some point during their school day.

I realize I am preaching to the choir with that statement, but as physical educators, we need to get off our high horse.  The reality is that change is slow and it is even slower when we are talking about systemic change. When it comes to change, I feel like policy is the easier part.  Changing attitudes and perceptions is the tough part.  I say this to say that public education is not operating within a utopia.  We are operating with budgets, lack of resources, teacher shortages and many other things.  Oregon is going to be implementing this PE law with a hodgepodge of solutions that school districts will try.  In some districts, they will increase classroom size to double the size of normal classrooms, in some they will put the onus on the classroom teacher to teach up to 45 minutes of the required 120.  In some districts, they will create something that they will count as physical education instruction that will much more resemble physical activity than physical education.

There are many physical educators who will have a problem with these implementation plans.  They will scream from the roof tops that we should be hiring more physical educators or building more gym spaces so that we can implement this law in its purest form.  They will decry this mandate as a bastardization of what should be happening and will consider the law to be an utter failure as a result.  The truth is, education doesn’t work like this and it certainly doesn’t change like this overnight.  It is an absolute VICTORY for us to be at the table and to be able to finally and legitimately be having these conversations about physical education in our public schools and illuminating our colleagues as to what quality physical education looks and feels like.

We are missing the point if we are looking at physical education mandates with only short term eyes.  We shouldn’t be looking at the success or failure of these laws with how it impacts us as professionals.  These laws WILL have an impact on the next generation of physical educators who end up replacing us someday when we retire.  This is a starting point, but it is not the end.  Here is the ugly truth:

There is a significant number of people who are in decision making positions in education who had poor experiences in physical education when they were students.

That is a failure of our profession, but we need to own that.  That’s also why we need as many quality physical educators IN THE CLASSROOM as possible.  Because we are the ones that will change the attitudes and perceptions of the people who become future leaders in school districts all over the country.  The problem now is that educational leaders will give lip service, but they truly don’t see the value of physical education.  Our objective should be to try to create small pockets of success that can be replicated and to change minds one person at a time.  This is going to take YEARS to accomplish.  It’s why what we do is not for the faint of heart.

I am excited that at my school, part of our plan to meet the mandate is to have 40 minutes on one day of the week be school wide physical activity choices that are tied to physical education standards.  All staff and all teachers will be helping with this school wide activity.  These 40 minutes are designed for students AND for staff.  We plan on collecting data around behavior and attendance to support dedicating this time during the school day.  Is this quality physical education that is being taught inside a gym by me?  No.  But, I am very cognizant at just how progressive this idea is in a system that isn’t always progressive.  I am confident that there is no way we would have dedicated time to a comprehensive school wide physical activity plan without the impetus of this law.

As physical educators, I think it would better serve us to get outside our own little closed box on what we think quality physical education is and open our minds to flexible possibilities that give us more chances to change hearts and minds for how adults value physical education.  It would also help further our efforts in influencing how our students perceive what we do because in no time they will become the ones making decisions around physical education policy.



6 Comments on “The Challenge of Implementing Physical Education Mandates

  1. What types of activities will be done school wide for the 40 min? The idea is intriguing.

  2. This is so well said Adam. And it’s a message I’ve been sharing for many years in my career here in CA. When you said it will take years to change others’ perceptions, that it’s really hard to do that, and it’s not for the faint of heart, you accurately identified the difficulty of our mission. I’ve been at it non-stop for 20 years. 2 years ago in my little district, we hired EPE specialists for the first time in 40 years. We got class size caps in the CBA for the first time ever. Where other districts around me are shrinking their PE, we’re expanding. 20 years! But it can be done, and it does take collaboration, creativity, and flexibility on everyone’s part to make it happen. In a perfect world, all real physical educators know what we want. But as you mentioned, every little step in the right direction is actually a huge victory and will help create the environment that places QPE in its proper place in the total school curriculum…right at the top alongside ELA, Math, & Science. Thanks for writing such a powerful piece, and for all you do to advocate for our profession and content area.

  3. Adam, very interesting article. As professionals we have to take into account the multi-faceted aspects of this dilemma. As a PE teacher I had only one perspective of this challenge. My first real outside the box moment was when I got involved with our district’s contract negotiations. I thought I could bring about change and get the schools in our district to meet the minutes/days requirements in the state of Illinois that we were not meeting at our K-2 and 3-5 buildings. I never expected the push back by my colleagues but I realized I had a very narrow perspective of this dilemma. As a part of the lead negotiations team on my second go round of contract talks, I had to realize that the hiring of two additional PE teachers was very selfish on my part. Those two salaries would be better served as salary raises for all the teachers I represented and once again my perspective was widened.

    As I transitioned from a teaching career into a professional leadership role, my perspective has broadened even further. This past year and specifically this summer, I have had so many meetings with our state legislators and state board of education leaders. I walk away with a realization that before moving forward we have to take in so many other aspects of this situation. From the legislators point of view, there are no minutes or days per week mandates for any other subject. It is difficult for a legislator to agree to a PE mandate when it doesn’t exist in any other arena of education.

    Our state board of education has not had a representative for Health and Physical Education for over three years. They recently hired someone to oversee school wellness, which includes Health and Physical Education along with school nurses, social workers and cafeteria programs. I have had a couple of in person meetings with this person along with multiple emails. We have a plan to address some minor challenges dealing with Health and Physical Education and look to increase a cooperative and collaborative working relationship. This will be a process. Two points that we have to have continued discussions about are: 1. If a bill or law to mandate minutes or days is in place (we currently are working with a 3 days per week mandate, which was negotiated under the Rauner administration when Rauner wanted to eliminate PE and its mandates in the state 4 years ago) how does ISBE enforce it. It is the job of the board of education to enforce it but there is only one staff person overseeing Health and PE along with school’s wellness programs. This is a personnel impossibility and the ISBE relies on Superintendents being honest when they respond to their on line audits and submit them. Sadly, I know school administrators overseeing districts that do not meet this current mandate, either know ISBE does not have the personnel to physically audit them on this issue or they lie.

    The next issue that we have in the profession is shortage of teachers. This is not just in the HPE world but across the board, I realize this. But the numbers that have been shared with me of the unfilled PE positions across the state is staggering and will only increase with the numbers of retirement eligible aged PE teachers across the state. Currently, our state universities and colleges are only producing between 10-20 percent of the HPE teachers needed to fill those positions yearly. ISBE is very aware of this dilemma and has reached out across state lines to our neighbor state universities and colleges alerting them to the HPE teaching positions available in Illinois. ISBE is brainstorming ideas to create incentives to bring in teachers to fill some of these vacancies. The teacher shortage creates additional issues with our current mandate. Schools are not even getting applicants for their open HPE positions. They are left with the dilemma of hiring a “warm body” to monitor in essence recess, request a waiver of the PE requirement with ISBE or increase class sizes with their current HPE professionals they have on staff. Increased class sizes run the risk of violating negotiated contracts between teacher unions and school districts.

    In all of these arenas, schools, teacher unions, political forums and administrative platforms, the HPE community has a very important duty, as you pointed out in your post. First, we need to be delivering high quality HPE programs to reverse past experiences by people in these arenas. Second, we need to be delivering high quality HPE programs to our students so we can influence their future decision making when it comes to the future of the HPE profession. And finally, we need to be seated at the table of all of these platforms: schools, unions, administration (locally and state board levels) and political (local, state and national levels) if we expect to have a voice in this whole process.

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