In the 1980s, the biggest concern in education was "Why Johnny Can't Read." If things continue at their current pace, the biggest concern in 2010 may be "Why Johnny Can't Bend Over to Tie His Shoes."
In a report released earlier this month, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher said an estimated 61 percent of U.S. adults were overweight, along with 13 percent of children and adolescents. The level of obesity in America has doubled for adults since 1980, and it's tripled for adolescents. Satcher estimates the direct and indirect costs of America's burgeoning bellies were $117 billion in 2000, and obesity and overweight problems play a hand in about 300,000 deaths a year.
"Overweight and obesity may soon cause as much preventable disease and death as cigarette smoking," Satcher said in his report. "People tend to think of overweight and obesity as strictly a personal matter, but there is much that communities can, and should, do to address these problems."
One small step was taken last week, when Congress reauthorized a program of physical education grants sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens. The bill, which is part of a larger education package called the No Child Left Behind Act, now awaits President Bush's signature.
The PE credits program, which was renamed the Carol M. White Physical Education Program after Sen. Stevens' chief of staff and longtime aide, provides $50 million to American school districts for the 2002 fiscal year and again in each the six following years. The money can be used to buy equipment, hire and train staff, support students in PE programs and enhance the school district's PE criteria.
"We're hoping to get more physical education programs in the schools," said White, who lived in Juneau in 1976-79 when she worked for Gov. Jay Hammond. "The better we can get people in shape, the better it is for all of us. Hopefully, this is just a little step to get us started."
Stevens has long been a proponent of physical education in the schools and sports in general. In 1978 he was the author of the Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act that helped expand the role of the U.S. Olympic Committee from a glorified travel agency booking athlete trips to the Olympics to that of developing national training centers.
Congress initially passed a $5 million appropriation for the bill in 2001, and 18 school districts around the country took advantage with grants ranging from $138,500 to $400,000. Some of the districts used the money to develop district-wide fitness tests, new fitness programs for students and continued education classes for PE teachers. The program was initially cut when Bush took office, but Stevens reintroduced the bill for the higher funding level and it passed last week.
Stevens noted that the number of high school students enrolled in daily gym classes fell from 42 to 29 percent in the 1990s. Only one state, Illinois, requires daily physical education for all students in grades K-12, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education wrote in its 2001 "Shape of the Nation Report." Two states, Colorado and South Dakota, have no statewide requirement for PE, but most local school districts in those states do have some requirements.
"We are seeing the results of this decline in physical activity," Stevens said in a release. "Our military has told me that an increasing number of new recruits are unable to meet their physical fitness requirements."
In Alaska, the state's basic high school graduation requirement is one unit of credit (one year) in health/physical education, and there's no statewide requirement for PE in elementary or middle school. Most school districts, such as Juneau and Anchorage, require 1 1/2 units of PE for high school graduation, and Juneau also requires a half-credit of health education.
Juneau School District Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan said Juneau middle schools require all sixth graders to take PE, and PE is offered and encouraged for seventh and eighth graders. She also said all elementary schools require PE, but there are different schedules with each school.
Over the years, tightening budgets meant physical education classes took a low priority as school districts tried to fund reading, writing and math classes, and also had to prepare students for more standardized tests. And that decreased emphasis on PE worried Stevens.
"It is important that we educate out children and all Americans on the importance of early physical activity, including sports, as the as the best way for a child to develop a healthy, life-long exercise habit," Stevens said. "Regular physical activity produces short-term health benefits and reduces the long-term risks for chronic disease, disability and premature death, which results in savings for health care costs."
I agree we need to get students in the habit of vigorous physical activity while they're young, and the new PE grant credits are a good start. But grant money has a way of coming to an end, and I'm just not sure we can pry the kids away from their television sets and computers long enough for them to go outside and play. This is where we need some help from the parents.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.