The Great P.E. Debate

Today we noticed that Omaha Public Schools are considering an opt-out plan for high school Physical Education Classes that would allow students competing in athletics or “other activities” to forego the P.E. requirement.  This led us into a surprisingly passionate discussion (full audio here) about the merits of P.E. classes, particularly at the secondary level.  My theory, which was pretty much rejected by every caller, e-mailer, and my own co-host is that while there is certainly value in exercise, physical activity, and a break from the mental rigors of High School, I’m not sure how much of those things are provided by general, non-elective P.E. classes in our high schools.  I can remember a lot of P.E. classes in my school days that seemed like a huge waste of time.  Further, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone credit their post-educational ‘healthy lifestyle’ to the experience of playing kickball for a half hour every other day. 

That said, I’ve got no problem for allowing an opt-out in certain situations.  It’s ridiculous to have any student who plays a varsity sport also participate in P.E. class if that student a) doesn’t desire to do so and b) has an legitimate alternate class with which he/she could replace it.  Further, I wouldn’t even have a problem with a student who wants to forego secondary ed P.E. requirements if it’s the only way he/she can participate in other elective academic pursuits or activities that present class conflicts.  Is it really that important that a 17 year old, likely active student take ‘recreational sports’ and goes out to the city driving range when he would rather be blowing off steam while playing a musical instrument or taking additional computer classes? 

Also, my co-host argued that if you don’t have room in your schedule for those extra pursuits, you’ve done a poor job organizing.  I couldn’t disagree more.  I saw this exact scenario happen several times while I was in High School, and as soon as he made that point, I got this email from a listener and recent High School graduate from here in Lincoln:

I have to argue against John’s point in saying the student should do some better planning.

 I was a musically talented student in high school (I graduated 2004) and always struggled to take music courses and meet academic requirements. My sophomore year I started school at 7:15 am skipped lunch to take a class and didn’t leave my last class until 3:20pm for a whole semester. I ended up graduating with almost 100 credit hours more than required and I still had to miss out on a semester of Wind Ensemble (top concert band) my senior year in order to satisfy the PE class requirement.

 I was not able to gain PE credits for the season of football and wrestling I participated in.

To me, this is the exact scenario where an opt-out would have been appropriate.  I know we had a lot of old-school folks calling in and reminding me about ‘kids today’ and their obesity and distaste for activity (which, by the way, is always overrated by the older generations), but let’s not live under the false impression that general, non-elective High School P.E. classes to fill a requirement are saving anyone from obesity or having any real long-term impact on health.  The truth is, I need a P.E. class now that I’m in my 30s a lot more than I did when I was in High School.  I’m fine with there being some sort of P.E. required coursework, particularly if there’s a lot of specialization available (and I understand that’s happening more and more) and if it’s not causing the kids to miss out on other legitimate class-time pursuits, but I don’t think P.E. classes (note I didn’t say fitness in general) are valuable enough to require of high schoolers when the cost is other passionate academic pursuits.


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