A weekend interview with ...
... Karen Dowd, executive director for the Florida Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Dance and Sport. Dowd, who also serves on the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness, spoke with reporter Donna Winchester about proposals to increase the amount of physical activity that students get in Florida's elementary and middle schools.
Florida lawmakers decided last spring that elementary students should receive 150 minutes a week of physical education. That rule has come under fire recently for being an unfunded mandate that has caused school districts to come up with all types of creative ways to meet the letter of the law while in many cases skirting its intent. What is your view of the legislation?
Our organization fully supported that bill. It was with the best of intentions that legislators introduced it. Unfortunately, in some schools and in some school districts, the interpretation was to cobble together minutes whenever the children were not sitting at their desks. To me, that is not the spirit of the mandate. We know that if we want children to increase their physical fitness levels they must participate in activities at a reasonable level of intensity for reasonable durations of time and in reasonable frequency during the school week. When schools make the decision to count the 2 minutes it takes to walk to the lunch room or to the media center, those little mini trips do not contribute significantly to a child's well-being, nor to their fitness levels.
What about what districts like Pinellas have done: doubling and tripling up classes and using non certified P.E. teachers?
That's a problem. First of all, a teacher assistant is not a certified teacher with the background to make decisions about what the children are doing. Our national standards in physical education published by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education state that the size of a physical education class for purposes of learning and teaching and safety should not exceed the class size in any other academic area. When they put two or three classes with a teacher or a teacher and a teacher assistant or two, that is not appropriate. It will by its nature require more standing around and less active participation by the children. Therefore, there will be less learning. More important, it takes the safety equation right off the charts.
We know that for adults, it's important to maintain the heart rate for a certain amount of time based on age. Is it the same for children?
The physiology of children and their growth and developmental stages are significantly different from an adult's. Because of that, children do not need time frames as extensive as adults. That does not excuse a great deal of standing around. However, we need to understand that physical education is not exclusively about physical fitness. It's not uncommon for a casual observer to look at an elementary physical education class and say, "That's not helping their fitness at all." But in fact a significant part of physical education, especially for the younger grade levels, is about skill development. It is about the basic motoric skills of balance and increasing and decreasing speed and judging what their bodies can and cannot do.
What should a physical education class look like?
The best physical education classes are personal and individualized. They are not competitive. It's not about determining who's the best. It's looking more at individual improvement. It's very difficult to have those good experiences when the physical education program does not have a standard indoor facility like all other classes do, or when they have limited equipment. I've been to schools where every third-grader has a computer, but the school only has three basketballs or three jump ropes for the entire class. There's a disparity there. A jump rope only costs $3.85.
What would be within reason when it comes to physical education legislation?
This year, it's very difficult to determine that. The legislature will be cutting about $5-million out of the budget. But a more realistic outcome for the future would be for children to be taught by certified physical educators who offer a contemporary physical education program, where children are taught in single class size units, and where indoor facilities are available when the weather is counter to safe and productive learning. There also would be ample resources to provide appropriate equipment. We have heroic teachers all over the nation who are purchasing equipment with their own funds, who are making homemade equipment to use in classes. Although that's very noble, it's not always safe. Mandates need to have funding to support them. Whether that's funding to extend the school day, funding to hire additional teachers or to provide equipment, building shade structures out on the playground, whatever it takes, we have to work toward that.
Did legislators talk to your organization before crafting last year's mandate?
They talked to our association. But I will tell you that they tend to write physical education bills in house. I think it's always a challenge when they don't talk to the experts. In this case, I think the legislators who wrote this bill knew it was imperfect, but they wanted to make the first step. We commend them for that. I commend the schools for trying to meet the letter of the law. But the letter of the law and the spirit of the law are two different things. We know it will take these incremental steps. But it is unfortunate that sometimes legislation is brought forward without fully considering the implications. In a perfect world, curriculum would be created and implemented by educators, not by legislators.
Does it bother you that even among educators, there are some who tend to look down on physical education teachers?
I think there are teachers in the schools who question the academic preparedness of physical educators. Maybe in some respects, they question their intelligence. I just want to say to these people that physical educators took courses in anatomy, biomechanics, physiology. They learned all about the growing child's body and what it needs and what kind of movement is appropriate. The physical education curriculum over the last 40 years in higher education has become quite rigorous. Forty years ago, one of the most common degree programs for athletes was physical education. In the 1990s that changed. If you look at college athletes today, very few are physical education majors because the curriculum is very intense. It's very demanding. They don't have the time for it. There are a lot of laboratory and internship hours. It's become a very challenging curriculum.
Do you think there will ever be an FCAT for physical education?
Honestly, no, I don't. Physical education by the nature of the beast must be more about the individual because of all the physiology variables as well as the intellectual variables. We have physical fitness tests, but they're only one snowflake in the story of what physical education is all about. Can we rank children by their performance on physical fitness tests? Sure we can. They're valid and reliable tests. But they only give you one slide in the Powerpoint of a child's life. I don't see a P.E. FCAT in my lifetime because of the tremendous need for individual curriculum for children.