West Virginia University researchers want to up the game for nationwide physical education standards

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Researchers at WVU's College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences believe that physical education standards in schools will promote lifelong physical activity.
Researchers at WVU's College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences believe that physical education standards in schools will promote lifelong physical activity.

Sacrificed by No Child Left Behind in favor of academic achievement, physical education requirements for public schools returned with the subsequent Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, but that doesn’t mean that school systems have consistent—or adequate—standards for their students. That lack sends a critical message to the public and to stakeholders, according to West Virginia University researchers.

Emi Tsuda and James Wyant, assistant professors at the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences, are evaluating accountability systems relative to P.E. standards around the U.S., and while they aren’t advocating for a “one size fits all” policy, their goal is to establish benchmarks for continued national, state and local efforts targeting systemic improvement. It’s important work, not just for the sake of standards, but as a matter of public health because obesity is beginning in some children at ever-earlier ages.

“Studies say physical education should start as early as pre-school,” Tsuda said. “Even at three-years-old, their skill level and their competence are already significantly different because their brain is almost developed.”

Securing quality physical education would expose children and adolescents to better lifestyle management which could help them ward off chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, the researchers found.

“Our viewpoint is that we can make that difference and trying to do our part, enriching their physical activity levels and their knowledge and skills,” Wyant said.

The problem Tsuda and Wyant see is that not enough school systems collect data about how students are doing, nor do they evaluate teachers, which Tsuda sees as a big issue. The importance of their study is to understand the current status of accountability systems and advocate for the needs of gathering necessary data that hold teachers accountable.

Tsuda hypothesizes that if the U.S. has an accountability system, people will start recognizing the importance of having those systems.

Students would be assured of a certified physical education teacher in the classroom, have motor skill development, personal fitness data and affective outcomes in sportsmanship. But perhaps most importantly, Tsuda and Wyant said, students would understand the value of physical activity and fitness, arguably the most difficult standard to address.

“If we teach them the importance of how they can be active outside of the school, they actually think about having this time and doing some physical activity,” Tsuda said. “When they get to high school and college, they have the knowledge and can place value on the importance of physical activity.”

Through their research, Tsuda and Wyant were able to see some of the pieces to the puzzle—which states are doing well, which states were aggregating some data and which states were lacking any data at all.

“We were able to synthesize all of that together and I think we were able to build [bridges] that [neighboring] states can use,” Wyant said. “Maybe this can move the conversation forward and get us closer to where we need to ultimately arrive, as it relates to accountability.”

He said he believes the research will be visible within the field and will help move states toward providing high quality physical education to their students.

CPASS faculty Sean Bulger, Eloise Elliott and Andrea Taliaferro also participated in the research.