Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone (During P.E.)
Religion & Liberty Online

Hey, Teacher, Leave Those Kids Alone (During P.E.)

If you’re a gradeschooler you’re probably sitting in a classroom right now thinking there’s no way teachers could possibly make school more tedious and boring.

Well, I have some bad news for you.

According to the New York Times, you may soon be studying the periodic table while playing dodgeball:

p.e.-classMs. Patelsky, the physical education teacher at Everglades Elementary School here, instructed the students to count by fours as they touched their elbows to their knees during a warm-up. They added up dots on pairs of dice before sprinting to round mats imprinted with mathematical symbols. And while in push-up position, they balanced on one arm and used the other (“Alternate!” Ms. Patelsky urged. “That’s one of your vocabulary words”) to stack oversize Lego blocks in columns labeled “ones,” “tens” and “hundreds.”

“I don’t work for Parks and Recreation,” said Ms. Patelsky, explaining the unorthodox approach to what has traditionally been one of the few breaks from the academic routine during the school day. “I am a teacher first.”

Spurred by an intensifying focus on student test scores in math and English as well as a desire to incorporate more health and fitness information, more school districts are pushing physical education teachers to move beyond soccer, kickball and tennis to include reading, writing and arithmetic as well. New standards for English and math that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia recommend that teachers in all subjects incorporate literacy instruction and bring more “informational text” into the curriculum.

But some parents say they object to the way testing is creeping into every corner of school life. And some educators worry that pushing academics into P.E. class could defeat its primary purpose.

Well, yes, if the purpose of P.E. is to teach physical education then it could be a problem. But why should schools care about physical education? Are teachers, principals, or administrators going to be judged based on whether their students are physically fit? If not, then what incentive do they have to care about P.E.?

Since the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, standardized testing has played a key role in the evaluation and accountability of teachers. This encourages teachers to “teach to the test”, focusing on excessive repetition of simple, isolated skills—”drill and kill”—rather than providing a holistic understanding of the subject matter.

Serious educators realize that having students reading vocabulary words off a gym wall isn’t going to improve their facility with language. But the students might be able to remember the words on their next standardized test. Why then shouldn’t they drill vocab words into their little heads while they’re exercising their little limbs?

As economist Steven E. Landsburg once said, “Most of economics can be summarized in four words: People respond to incentives.’  The rest is commentary.” In an attempt to reform education, the government has provided teachers with perverse incentives to focus more on a standardized test than on a child’s education.

But they are also giving children a lesson in gnosticism by teaching them that exercising the body is a necessary but unimportant activity while what really matters is that the mind is constantly engaged. Why do we want to teach children that physical activity is drudgery that requires productive distraction? Kids will learn soon enough that the gym is the place you go to run on a treadmill and watch FOX News. But until that day comes, why don’t we let them enjoy some physical activity that doesn’t include test prep.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).