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Education

No one's picked last in this P.E. class

Physical education has gained greater salience and attention of late as kids have grown increasingly sedentary and obese. Now the Washington Post reports on a "New PE" movement that aims to give kids flexibility and incentives to change their lifestyle, rather than simply master sports they don't like.

But is it new? And will it take?

The Post notes that schools have been trying out technologies including pedometers and heart rate monitors, encouraging unconventional sports like archery, and encouraging exercise like Zumba that can be done anywhere and continued for a lifetime.

"Nearly one of every three U.S. children is overweight or obese," the Post says, "a rate that has tripled in the past three decades. Students are less likely to walk to school or play outside before dinner, and they are more likely to spend hours in front of a television or computer screen. Many advocates see physical education, with its potential to reach 56 million students, as a key way to influence behavior during and after the school day."

In a lengthy review of the New PE and the policy challenges underlying it, Richard Rapaport at Edutopia notes that budget cuts and adult indifference have resulted in a steady decline in physical education over recent decades.

"The CDC reported that between 1991 and 2003, the percentage of high school students enrolled in daily PE classes dropped from 42 percent to 28 percent," Rapaport notes. "The study also showed that while 70 percent of high school freshmen attended at least one — generally required — PE class a week, that number dropped to 40 percent by senior year. At the same time, according to the CDC, America's fast food diet and sedentary lifestyle has led to a quadrupling of the number of overweight children ages 6-11 since the 1960s."

But the Post also notes that this effort has been going on for 20 years, which raises the question of how really new it is and whether what is new will actually take hold.

"The New PE: Is it Hogwash?" asks Aaron Hart at Spark PE, a 25-year-old nonprofit physical education curriculum program. Hart did a database search and found the use of "New PE" going back as far as 1979. By 2007, an article in Illinois Journal was titled, “Enough Already with ‘New PE’ Rhetoric!”

"We think this is the wave of the future, the direction that physical education needs to go in," says Chris Edgington, dean of Northern Iowa's Health, Physical Education and Leisure Services department, in a USA Today report.

"It's absolutely amazing to see how much self-directed activity these students are involved in," Edgington says. "They're getting their heart rates up, and they don't have to run a four-minute mile to do it. Every kid can succeed. That's the beauty of that program. Most physical education programs, there are kids off on the side, not doing anything."

But the USA Today report on the New PE was from 2004 — 10 years ago.

So what's new?

Email: eschulzke@desnews.com