SHERIDAN — Most elementary-aged students in Wyoming receive less physical education than kids in other states — roughly two times per week, well below the national average of 2.5 times per week — according to the first-ever statewide survey of its kind.
“To get a snapshot of Wyoming, we asked PE teachers to describe how many minutes a week they see their kids. We asked about recess, and also some policy things like, ‘Is recess or PE withheld from kids ever?’ and whether physical education credits could be replaced with band or ROTC,” said University of Wyoming Division of Kinesiology and Health professor Ben D. Kern, who designed and distributed the Wyoming Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance survey.
“We wanted to take an honest look at ourselves, and what this showed is that we are well below the national average in terms of offering physical education, especially in terms of elementary school,” he said.
In March of 2021, WAHPERD administered the Wyoming Physical Education and Physical Activity Policy Survey to teachers across the state, and responses came in from 175 teachers, representing 36 of the 47 school districts in the state.
That survey showed that overall, physical education classes are offered to elementary students roughly two times per week, to middle school students on average 3.1 times per week and to high school students 3.5 times per week.
About 20 percent of teachers surveyed said less physical education was offered to students during the 2020-21 school year, with 31% reporting they had larger class sizes than classroom teachers at their school.
This summer, the Wyoming Department of Education is collecting public input on the 2021 Wyoming Health Education Content and Performance Standards and the 2021 Physical Education Content and Performance Standards at the request of the State Board of Education. While this process is independent of the UW study, the public is welcome to comment on the proposed standards.
Laurie Hernandez, director of standards and assessment at the WDE, said that with all its standards reviews, the state starts with a community input period and an educator period.
“We ask questions through a survey about the current standards, what they like and what they don’t,” Hernandez said, adding that the review committee keeps the following in mind: “Why are the standards in the content area we are talking about important, and what do we want the committee to know?”
“This is all designed while thinking, ‘What is the end goal? What do we want kids to be able to do when they graduate?’ and making sure it is a successful path forward,” she said.
Sheridan County School District No. 2’s Mitch Craft said that SCSD2 deeply values physical and health education.
“We make PE and health a priority because we know that the well-being of our students is essential for their quality of life and lays a foundation for learning across the other content areas,” he said.
Developing healthy habits, fitness levels and overall wellbeing during childhood increases the likelihood that students will maintain these factors beyond high school, he said.
“We want our students to live great lives both in school and beyond,” he said.
SCSD2 is “happy that the state is revising the PE and health standards for Wyoming,” Craft said.
“Science in these areas advances rapidly, so it's time to update the standards to ensure alignment with the latest knowledge and advancements in this content area,” he said. “Once the new standards are released, we will work with our educators to do a deep dive into what has changed. We will then provide the team with resources and training to ensure successful implementation in our schools.”
To that end, Kern has helped to create the Wyoming Physical Education Teaching (Wyo PETe) Collaborative, which began in the summer of 2020. Wyo PETe is tasked with providing PE and health teachers continuing professional development they need in order to stay current in their field, which ultimately benefits Wyoming children.
There are significant challenges like funding, Wyoming’s rural nature and finding professional development opportunities specific to the content area that impact on how much, and what quality of, PE and health classes Wyoming students receive. Wyo PETe currently has approximately 140 Wyoming physical educator “collaborators,” Kern said, and the organization collaborates with WAHPERD to provide professional development with a strong emphasis on student social and emotional learning in physically active settings. Wyo PETe offered its first professional development series online in 2020.
“We had to deliver that online because of the pandemic. In some ways, that was positive, because those teachers in rural, remote areas of Wyoming were able to still join the conversation,” he said.
Being on the cutting edge of professional development means an awareness that even the definition of physical education itself is changing. Educators talk about “physical literacy” to describe what is considered the ability, the confidence and the desire to be physically active for one’s whole life.
“That is what we exist for,” Kern said, adding that student social and emotional learning often happens in physically active settings. Less than half of American adults meet daily recommendations for physical activity, though, and that represents a challenge for PE teachers across the nation.
“We have things like diabetes and heart disease and, nine out of the 10 top causes of death can be linked back to, at some level, sedentary behavior. We have to adjust to this,” he said. “The challenge in physical education is to give students a chance to experience a variety of different types of activity so they can start to understand what things they do like.”
But how to measure student success, or development? Kern said that can be tricky, because grading on a child’s physical fitness is not appropriate.
“It’s a lot easier to look at how not to measure the standards,” he said. “Generally the idea of assessing students (physical fitness) and assigning any value to that, like a grade for their fitness level, is really inappropriate. We don’t do that.”
While it may make sense to do fitness testing, rather than assign a grade from it, the results should be used to help students gain information about how to grow from there.
“All too often, we emphasize the outcome of the fitness test, when that really isn’t what is important. What is important is what you do with the data,” he said.