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Physical Education Teachers


In the United States, organized physical education is less than 200 years old. In 1823, George Bancroft, a historian and statesman, opened the Round Hill School in Northampton, Mass. In 1825, Bancroft hired Charles Beck to teach Latin and physical education. Beck, a follower of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, a German known as the "Father of Gymnastics," is often considered to be the first physical education teacher in the United States. Amherst College (Mass.) opened the first department of physical education in the United States in 1860. One year later, the physician Dioclesian Lewis founded the Normal Institute of Physical Education in Boston, Mass. It was the first school to prepare teachers of physical education. Following the Civil War, physical education became part of many educational programs.

In the early 20th century, physical education programs expanded and improved rapidly. Between 1901 and 1925, 32 states passed physical education legislation requiring some sort of physical training in schools.

By the early 1950s, fitness tests revealed that American children were lagging behind their European counterparts. In response, President Eisenhower formed the Council on Youth Fitness, which eventually became the President's Council on Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Physical fitness programs grew in popularity in schools. They focused largely on activities that developed athletic skills, such as calisthenics and competitive sports.

During the past two decades, physical education classes have been under attack by school systems interested in saving money and improving academic performance in traditional academic disciplines. The introduction of classes such as computer science, art, foreign language, and music into school curriculums has also reduced the time allotted for physical education classes.

According to a 2006 joint study by the National Association for Sports and Physical Education and the American Heart Association, only 56 percent of high school students participate in physical education. In addition, the percentage of schools requiring physical education in each grade progressively drops by grade level—from 50 percent in first through fifth grades to 5 percent in grade 12. In 2003, only 28 percent of all students attended a daily PE class—down from 42 percent of students in 1991. The study also revealed that only 8 percent of elementary schools, 6.4 percent of middle/junior high schools, and 5.8 percent of high schools provide daily physical education under recommended guidelines. Ill. is the only state in the nation that requires daily PE, but, since 1995, Ill. schools have been allowed to seek waivers to exempt them from compliance.

These reductions in physical education programs have contributed to an increasing epidemic of overweight and obese children. Today, an estimated 17 percent of all U.S. children and teens between the ages of two and 19 in the United States are obese. The percentage has more than doubled among children, and nearly tripled among adolescents since 1980, according to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Health problems for overweight and obese children include heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and the development of type 2 diabetes (a disease previously limited to adults).

Ironically, studies have shown clear links between athletic fitness and academic success. A 2004 study by the California Department of Education found a strong relationship between academic achievement and the physical fitness of students in its public schools. Reading and mathematics scores were matched with the fitness scores of nearly one million fifth-, seventh-, and ninth-grade students. The fittest students had higher academic achievement levels.

Physical education classes today focus on the development of fitness skills, nonathletic competition, individual exercise goals, and aerobic training. This new approach to physical education is often referred to as "the new PE." Madison Junior High School in Naperville, Ill., is an excellent model of how the new PE is changing the lives of young people. While kids at Madison still participate in team sports during gym class, PE instructors also teach them how to use exercise bikes, weights, inline skates, and treadmills. The school even has a rock-climbing wall that students can use. Madison students are graded on how well they stay within heart-rate zones rather than who runs the fastest. Students also receive a computer printout that records their heart rate, body fat, and cholesterol levels. Students are tracked through the 12th grade. Many schools in Illinois have changed to this new physical education model.

Public officials are beginning to see the value of physical education in the schools. Congress passed The Physical Education for Progress Act in 2000. It authorizes the Secretary of Education to award grants to school districts to start, expand, and improve K–12 physical education programs. Grants may be used to purchase athletic equipment, develop curriculum, and hire and train physical education staff.

As a result of this legislation and continuing lobbying efforts by physical education advocacy organizations, PE teachers can expect an optimistic employment outlook for their field.

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