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No child left out of the dodgeball game?

By Helyn Trickey
Special to CNN

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Some critics suggest President Bush's NCLB law has led to fewer hours for P.E. at schools across the country.

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(CNN) -- As more of America's school-age children are growing fatter, the physical education curriculum that might help them win the fight is gasping for air, says a recently released report.

The 2006 Shape of the Nation -- jointly conducted by the American Heart Association and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting high quality physical education -- concluded that most states are failing to provide students with adequate physical education requirements.

The percentage of students who attend a daily physical education class has dropped from 42 percent in 1991 to 28 percent in 2003, the report says.

The report's findings are compelling in the context of the rise in obesity rates.

The number of kids considered overweight has more than tripled since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among those between ages 6 to 19, over 9 million kids -- 16 percent -- are considered overweight.

There is no one single reason for the rise in obesity nor is it an overnight phenomenon, experts say. Changes in eating patterns -- like the portions of food consumed, which have grown over the last 20 years and the types of food now available, like fast food and pre-packaged meals which may be high in fats, sugars and calories -- have played a role in the weight gain, the CDC says.

Modern life has also made Americans more sedentary. "Technology has created many time and labor saving products. Some examples include cars, elevators, computers, dishwashers, and televisions. Cars are used to run short distance errands instead of people walking or riding a bicycle," the CDC says.

Meanwhile, some 41 million American kids participate in organized, extracurricular youth sports like soccer, baseball, and football, which can balance the reported drop in physical activity at school. But, proponents of increased physical activity contend that not every child is able to take part in the sometimes-expensive organized play, making physical education in schools essential.

"With the obesity rates going up and it's in our face, why are we cutting P.E. time? I don't get it," says Garrett Lydic, a physical education teacher at North Laurel Elementary School in Laurel, Delaware and his state's Teacher of the Year in 2006.

"The focus right now is on testing," he said, referring to a series of academic tests now mandated by federal law. "The result is that there's less time to get kids more active."

The curriculum at Lydic's school allows for students to spend about 90 minutes a week with him. Additionally, Lydic's students get a 20-minute recess each day.

Federal law to blame?

Critics contend that the very legislation meant to bolster national academic standards -- the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 -- may be a culprit in the diminishing P.E. curriculum, unintentionally sapping schools of time and resources for exercise as educators focus more and more on test scores and rigorous academic coursework.

The NCLB Act is President Bush's centerpiece education law that, among other things, requires virtually all students to test at their grade level for math and reading. Schools that do not measure up to the standards two years in a row have to provide more tutoring or let students transfer to better schools.

"We acknowledge that while the goals of these educational initiatives -- NCLB included -- are good, our position is that this is not an either/or situation. We should expect both from our schools: physical activity and high academic achievement," says Russell Pate, a professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina. He is also a co-author of an American Heart Association scientific statement entitled "Promoting Physical Activity in Children and Youth."

"We really feel that a national problem is that P.E. and health education are not included in core curriculum in schools," he says. "I think it is obvious schools are going to understandably pay the most attention to areas where they are evaluated. If we continue to leave P.E. off the accountability records, it will be hard to get schools to incorporate it."

Nearly a third of the states do not mandate physical education for elementary and middle school students, and 12 states allow students to earn required physical education credits through online physical education courses, according to the NASPE report.

While most states require some sort of physical education, a majority of them do not have specific curriculum requirements, leaving crucial decisions like the amount of time spent in P.E. classes, student assessment or class size up to local school districts, individual schools or even teachers, the report said.

High school students seem to fare the worst. The study found that more than a third of young people in grades 9 to 12 do not regularly engage in vigorous physical activity: Sixty-nine percent of ninth-graders participate in vigorous physical activity on a regular basis, while only 55 percent of 12th-graders take part in the same level of activity.

A national study by the Center on Public Education published earlier this year on the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law found that 71 percent of the districts surveyed had elementary schools that cut back on instructional time for a subject to make room for more reading and math -- the primary focus of the law.

Of the four subjects that the districts most frequently cited as having been cut, physical education was the least -- behind social studies, science, and the arts, CPE president Jack Jennings said. "What our data is showing is that there is a cut [in time devoted to physical education], it just isn't as large as academic subjects," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education contends in a newly released study that 99 percent of public elementary schools have some type of physical education built into their curriculum in 2005.

But how often students actually engaged in physical activity varies widely. Between 17 and 22 percent of students attended P.E. each school day. Another 11 to 14 percent scheduled P.E. three or four days a week and 22 percent scheduled P.E. one day a week.

Chad Colby, deputy press secretary for the Department of Education, defended the NCLB's requirements.

"I think you have to look at many other factors when you look at obesity," he said. "To put the blame on a program that requires kids to read and do math at grade level is absurd. It tends to be an excuse, but it is a poor one."

Physical education privatized?

Ironically, it may be just that half-hour of recess or ten minutes of running laps that helps boost test scores more than anything else, says Eric Jensen, author of "Enriching the Brain," a book that explores the relationship between physical movement and cognitive learning.

"Exercise creates more alertness in a classroom situation," Jensen said. "It stimulates more of the natural uppers in brain, like dopamine, and it improves working memory and problem solving skills."

Jacalyn Lund, president of National Association for Sport and Physical Education, also contends that not every child has the time or money to play soccer or basketball or take ballet lessons after school.

"Schools are the one thing that kids do each and every day, so if P.E. can become a core subject in the school ... every child can get a strong background, and we know they'll be more likely to participate in physical activity as adults," she said.

Jensen says the trend toward after-school organized sports and away from mandated physical education in public schools has made the playing field uneven.

"The upper echelon in our society will have more access to sports, and the lower income kids will get less and less physical activity. ... (This trend) keeps poverty-stricken kids where they are ... it's not getting better; it's getting worse in our nation," he said.

Pate, the exercise science professor, says the trend has placed more of a burden on families for finding outlets for physical activity.

"I think one interpretation is that we've privatized P.E. -- not intentionally -- but by cutting back on physical education in the schools," he said.

"We've put parents in the position of finding these services elsewhere, and families with resources can get their kids into classes and sports leagues, but transportation issues and safety issues can be greater barriers for less advantaged families."

At North Laurel Elementary School, P.E. teacher Lydic makes the most of the time he has with his elementary students.

One popular activity he uses involves placing large, magnetized math problems all over the rock face of a climbing wall.

When his students arrive to class, he will ask each one to choose an answer out of a box and then climb the wall, solving addition and subtraction problems as they pull themselves along until they find the math problem that matches their answer.

"When you learn something through physical means your brain has a better way of recalling it," Lydic explained. "The kids are already excited about moving, you don't have to get them excited, you just have to get the teachers out of their comfort zones and convince them to take more risks in terms of activities and new ways of learning."

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