Cutting PE

OK, I’ll admit it. If there was one class in high school that I was tempted to cut, it was PE (no, mom, I never skipped class – I was way too much of a rule follower to do that). I was no athlete, though I did play on the volleyball team, and Phys Ed was generally torture for me. I think I still have dodge ball nightmares. But my own kids have had two terrific PE teachers who have demonstrated to me just how important a quality gym program can be for students. And now instead of cutting PE, I’m worried about proposed cuts to PE.

Tonight at the Pittsburgh school board’s public hearing, a number of people are speaking out about proposed changes to the district’s PE requirements. The changes are part of a package of new high school graduation requirements, which would halve the number of required PE credits, reducing them from 2 to 1 (each course is a .5 credit). Effectively that means that Freshmen and Sophomores would take gym, but it would be optional for Juniors and Seniors.

My understanding is that the district is trying to make more room for Biology in 9th grade, perhaps adding lab time (though at least some schools have had Freshman biology labs in the past, and still accommodated PE, so I am unsure of this rationale – if this is indeed behind the proposed changes). Some people have told me that there is concern about low student scores on the Keystone exam and that we are trading PE time, which “doesn’t count,” for test-prep time in an area “that counts.” (If that’s true, this would be another example of the consequences for students of high-stakes testing.) There have also been scheduling issues at some schools with upper-class students fitting in their AP courses.

In a meeting a few weeks ago, the district told me the changes were being proposed to bring PE credits in line with other course offerings and to provide more choices. I’m not sure why we can’t continue requiring PE and offer more choices at the same time. Gym was never my favorite class, but I had to take it every year of high school – and it was a whole lot better when I got a chance to choose aerobics (and even archery!) over being pummeled with a dodge ball.

I’m particularly worried about the huge number of students who are not getting adequate daily exercise: a report released last spring by the Institute of Medicine shows that only half of kids are meeting national guidelines. Their “committee recommends that elementary school students spend an average of 30 minutes per day in physical education class, and middle and high school students should spend an average of 45 minutes per day in physical education class.” [Institute of Medicine Report, 5-23-13] That’s 45 minutes every day, not once or twice a week, and not for just two years out of four in high school. If we are serious about the “whole child,” shouldn’t we be thinking about the obesity epidemic?

The bottom line is, with these proposed changes will come additional teacher cuts. Our students have already lost so many of their teachers – and with fewer adults in the building there is a real impact on overall education, not just physical education. For example, my kids’ K-8 school has lost so many adults that there aren’t enough eyeballs to sufficiently staff recess. While rumors are flying and I’ve heard unofficial reports with even higher numbers, here is what I understand the district proposed to the board last week:

  • Allderdice (.5 cut), from 7 to 6.5 teachers.
  • Brashear (3 cuts), from 7 to 4 teachers.
  • Carrick (1 cut), from 4 to 3 teachers.
  • Obama (no cuts) still at 3 teachers.
  • Perry (.5 cut), from 4.5 to 4 teachers.
  • Sci Tech (no cuts) still at 2 teachers.
  • Uprep (2.5 cuts), from 3 to 1.5 teachers.
  • Westinghouse (.5 increase), from 2 to 2.5 teachers.

If the board approves these cuts, it will actually be up to individual school principals to schedule PE courses. I worry that this means we will have another equity issue on our hands, similar to school libraries, with some buildings robbing Peter to pay Paul and keep a full complement of PE offerings, while others use the approved reductions to move resources to other areas. Making PE fungible could lead to more inequity. [See “A Picture is Worth 1,000 Books”]

The Pittsburgh school board will be voting on the proposed changes in graduation requirements at its meeting this Wednesday. Here are the questions I hope they will consider – and that I hope the district will answer, to help us all understand more:

  1. Are our students going to lose more teachers?
  2. Will there be cuts to K-8 teachers and classes as well?
  3. Are we cutting PE to make room for more test-prep (or testable subjects)?
  4. How are students going to have more choices if there are fewer teachers to offer the courses (which already have 45 kids per class, per the collective bargaining agreement)?
  5. Could we not offer choices and require PE all four years in high school?
  6. How does this proposed reduction in PE requirements help PPS meet the national standards for physical exercise?
  7. How will the district ensure equity in PE offerings?

What questions would you add? If you are concerned about this issue, you can write to the PPS board at But do it quickly – the stopwatch is running and the gym teacher is about to blow the whistle for the last time.

3 thoughts on “Cutting PE

  1. PE is optional at middle schools in TAcoma. Our new principal is going to institute that every 6th grader must take pE beginning next year. I am conflicted on this, because we are also going from an A/B schedule to a daily schedule. With band and foreign language every day, instead of every day, kids will not have as many electives to choose from.
    (Social Studies is also an elective)
    I too hated PE as I was terrible at sports. Fortunately, our high school had a pool, so I took swimming as my PE class through all 4 years of school.

  2. Physical education IS a testable subject if it is done right. The problem may be that many of the phys ed programs are not done right. Some may still be playing dodgeball which is severely discouraged for a true professional physical education teacher. Some programs even pass students through without ever really exercising. So, physical education should be tested to #1 hold teachers accountable for what they teach and #2 show the achievements of the students and therefore the value of the program.
    note; I have two degrees in this profession but I admit it’s been about 7 years since I have seen first hand what is happening in Pittsburgh Public School’s physical education classes.

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