Why Today’s Physical Education Doesn’t Make the Grade

Setting the Scene: The first time I ever saw him present was in September, 1983. I had just completed my fifth year of teaching and was one of 200 or so teachers attending the Fall Physical Education Leadership Conference in Reidsville, North Carolina.

The last time I saw him present was 20 years later – the start of the 2003-2004 school year. This master teacher-presenter hadn’t changed much in 20 years; he still possessed his hyperactive high energy levels, his inspiring way of communicating to teachers, and his love for physical education.

“What a wonderful start for our annual district-wide staff development day,” I was thinking to myself. It seemed that almost nothing has changed in the past 20 years with him.

His contagious enthusiasm quickly spread to the 100 or so physical education teachers attending our school district’s annual Staff Development Day. Everyone seemed “pumped” with excitement. Even the older, more reserved teachers didn’t seem to mind doing the “heart-healthy” dances that were presented!

“How many of you have had a good time so far?” the 66-year-old PE teacher-presenter asked as he motioned with his hands for us to sit down. Instantly, numerous folks raised their hands! Spontaneously, one teacher began to clap, then another, and soon the entire gym was filled with applause. Another small group of teachers in the center of the gym started talking and stood up together facing the presenter. In unison, each teacher in the group made a large circle shape with their arms high above their heads. The rest of the teachers in the gym followed the group’s lead, soon everyone was standing – each with their arms in a large circle shape – a “standing O-vation.”

“A Standing O” – It was something the presenter had talked about earlier in the morning as a simple and quick way to recognize outstanding effort. This “thank you” seemed to take him by surprise. You could tell this gesture had a special effect on him, or so it seemed. After a minute or so, everyone sat back down as the presenter regained his composure and started to speak.

“Thank you all very much,” he said walking slowly across the gym floor. “But you know, it’s really like…” his voice instantly tapered off as he grimaced, slightly dragging his right foot behind. Instantly, everyone in the gym sensed something was not quite right. What’s wrong with his leg? He grimaced again. It was as if he had a huge weight shackled to his right leg. Then he stopped and stood silently.

The Chains of Tradition: “You know,” he said with a sly smile, “In physical education, we have been dragging heavy ‘chains of tradition’ for too long. These ‘chains of tradition’ keep us from moving forward, from changing our methods of teaching. They’re heavy and difficult to get rid of. They make us throw up our hands and say ‘things will never change, this is the way things have always been.'”

“And the people who are saying ‘things will never change’ are right! Things will never change as long as you and I continue to drag this ‘chain of tradition’ around with us.”

He continued, “Now, before we break for lunch at 12:00, I would like each of you to get into groups of threes and discuss among yourselves what ‘chains of tradition’ you have been dragging around.”

What happened that day was a revelation to me!

You see, I now had a way to explain why Physical Education still seems to cling to the traditional ways of doing business. As I looked around to find two other teachers, I knew exactly what my ‘chain’ was and still is — it’s “grading.”

Why Today’s PE Doesn’t Make the Grade! In my 35+ year career as a physical education teacher, state-level administrator, and local Central Office Supervisor, I have one major regret – “I have done little to change the way we grade students in physical education.” For me, physical education will finally “make the grade” when we begin to do the following four items:

1. Transition from traditional grading practices (ex: dressing out) to a standards-based model.

2. Re-design individual state standards so that there are no more than 15 “core outcomes” per grade level.

3. In the re-design effort, create a K-12 scope and sequence that is sequential, easy-to-understand, and simple to articulate.

4. Involve higher education – the colleges and universities that are preparing the next generation of future teachers.

The Virtual PE Administrator: Over the past 2-3 years, I have been fortunate enough to work with a number of progressive school districts in addressing the above items. From this collaboration, we have been able to develop and create a new web-based physical education assessment and tracking program called the Virtual PE Administrator. These school districts are now starting to implement a program that will track and monitor individual student progress aligned to 12 grade-by-grade “core outcomes” from the time they enter kindergarten to graduating high school.