As American children grow fatter and more out of shape, physical education classes (search) are being found wanting. Experts say there's little accountability for P.E. teachers in most schools. They say the classes are often poorly run, and students don't spend much time in them anyway.
Lisa Lewis, a health professor, heard her two sons talk about how bad their high school P.E. class was, so she went to see for herself.
"It's been terrible," she said. The teacher was a basketball coach, and "that's basically all they did — play basketball between 40 and 50 kids." Many students, especially those who weren't athletic, just stood on the sidelines of the disorganized game.
Nearly one-fifth of all high school P.E. teachers don't have a major and certification in physical education, according to the most recent numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (search).
Often the instructor is a coach more interested in winning games than in producing healthy students, experts say.
"That stigma that a coach cares more about the team than his physical education class does exist," said George Graham, professor of kinesiology at Penn State University.
"When a teacher or coach is doing that, it's really up to the principal to get in there and say, 'We want to win ball games, but the kids in P.E. deserve a good education too.'"
The lack of respect for P.E. also appears in the number of students required to take it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2003, only 28 percent of high school students nationwide attended a daily P.E. class, but 38 percent watched television for three hours or more each school night.
While 71 percent of the nation's freshmen were in P.E. at least one day a week — hardly enough to be effective, experts say — those numbers drop to 40 percent by the students' senior year.
But participation varies widely by state. In Tennessee, for instance, only 18 percent of seniors were enrolled in a P.E. class, while New York has better than 90 percent participation.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (search) says Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education K-12, while Alabama requires it for K-8.
In California, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, New York, South Carolina and Vermont, accountability standards are being developed for health and physical education programs.
"Unless we hold physical education teachers accountable for the fitness of the student ... there's no way to evaluate who is good or who is bad because we're more concerned with math and reading," Lewis said. "There needs to be some sort of minimal national fitness standard — that would be a very easy thing to establish."
Some schools have done just that — like the Victor Central School District just outside Rochester in Victor, N.Y.
Superintendent Timothy J. McElheran said his teachers are held to specific goals and judged like any math or science teacher would be.
"It's no longer the coach with the whistle around his neck," he said. "Our physical education teachers are highly trained professionals."
Victor's nationally recognized program includes rock-climbing, kayaking, cross-country skiing, archery and aerobic dance as options for students.
"They take what they're doing very seriously," he said.
But not all do, and a new federal education law doesn't give schools much incentive.
"The thought in some schools is, 'If we eliminate P.E., then they will have more time to do better educationally,' but there's nothing to suggest that's the case," Graham said.
"Kids — just like adults at work — need breaks and they need time on their own."
Lewis has seen the poor state of physical education not only in her sons' school, but also at Middle Tennessee State University where she works. The school recently dropped requirements for health and P.E. from the core curriculum.
MTSU general education director Bill Badley said the P.E. requirement went from four hours to zero when the school decided to add classes to the core curriculum while lowering the total number of classes needed to graduate.
Lewis wasn't able to stop the changes at MTSU, but she was able to make a difference at her sons' school.
"I went to the class and actually helped the physical educator," Lewis said. "The non-athletes, they're the ones who need it most."
NASPE president Dolly Lambdin said the cuts in secondary schools and colleges intensify the problem that begins at a young age.
"Whatever belief we teach (children) in elementary school, middle school and high school, those beliefs will carry over in college," she said. "We can't continue the model (that) we have to fix things later. It doesn't work on your car and it doesn't work on your body. Physical maintenance is the key."