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'No Child Left Behind,' But Physical Activity May Suffer

(HealthDay News) -- Ever since the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 took effect, some health officials have worried about an unintended side effect as schools struggle to meet the law's mandates that all children measure up in reading, math and other basic skills.

Their fear: Less and less time will be allotted for physical activity and even recess, in turn fueling the obesity epidemic in American children and teens. Some critics have taken to calling the act "No Child Left Without a Big Behind" or "No Child Let Outside."

"The risk is there," said James Sallis, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a proponent of physical activity in schools.

While Sallis, like other experts, could offer no specific trends or statistics proving a cutback in physical education programs, some experts say there are plenty of anecdotal reports of schools and districts cutting back on gym glasses to provide more time and money to focus on the act's mandates.

"If they spend time on something not on the list -- math, science, reading -- they will be out of business," Sallis said, referring to the penalties imposed for not meeting the mandates. The act, he added, is "treating kids like little learning machines, which they are not."

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education said the agency had no formal reaction to concerns that the No Child Left Behind Act might lead to a curtailment of physical education programs in schools.

"We do have the Carol M. White Physical Education Program," said spokesman David Thomas, noting this program provides grants to local school districts to help them promote physical education programs.

The No Child Left Behind Act, called a landmark in education by advocates, is meant to improve student achievement by holding schools accountable for test results in reading and math through high school, and ensuring they provide parents with more information about their child's progress.

"We've heard examples of where PE [physical education] and recess have been cut back," said Daniel Kaufman, a spokesman for the National Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers and support staff. "We're hearing, for example, of schools cutting back on PE and recess in order to make sure they have time to focus on preparing students to take standardized tests."

Even before the act went into effect, daily physical activity wasn't commonplace in many schools, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A 2000 CDC study found that just 8 percent of elementary schools, 6.4 percent of middle or junior high schools, and 5.8 percent of senior high schools provided daily physical education or its equivalent for the entire school year for students in all grades.

In the same survey, the CDC said that 40 percent of high schools allowed student exemptions from required physical education courses or school sports. Often acceptable reasons to opt out of physical education include participation in vocational training, community service or a conflict with other school activities.

As physical education declines, obesity among America's children and teens is at an epidemic level, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Among children and teens ages 6 to 19, more than 9 million, or 16 percent, are overweight -- triple the proportion in 1980, the report said.

Kaufman believes the pressure on schools to neglect physical education will only intensify as academic mandates required by No Child Left Behind are phased in and performance standards rise.

To focus only on academics is shortsighted, he contended. "Children perform better academically when they have time for breaks, to work off the tension, to have fun. We don't want to turn our schools into testing factories," he said.

In May, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman defied the act, signing a bill that gives the state education standards priority over federal requirements. An estimated 15 states are considering similar legislation this year. Huntsman signed the bill despite warnings from U.S. education officials that doing so could cost his state $76 million in federal aid, according to news reports.

Parents who are concerned about a lack of physical education can -- and should -- speak up, Sallis said. "Parents do not realize their power," he said, adding that even a single parent lobbying for retaining physical education can have an impact. "One vocal, consistent parent can change a school. A small group can change the district," he said.

Kaufman offers other suggestions on ways to keep physical education in schools. "Attend PTA meetings, contact your local representatives, members of Congress. Write to the editor of your local paper," he said.

Added Sallis: Asking for more physical education and less junk food in the school cafeteria is a good way to help stem the obesity epidemic.

— Kathleen Doheny, Health Day Reporter


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