Trying to give phys ed bigger curriculum role

Review: The leader of a Howard County committee wants the subject to have more time for instruction.

March 10, 2002|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Bashers of physical education have had a proverbial field day shrinking the subject nationally, as well as in Maryland and in Howard County, in recent years.

For example, the only physical-education requirement for graduation from a Maryland public high school is completion - between ninth and 12th grades - of two of 16 quarters in the subject. Another: Howard middle-schoolers can opt to start studying a foreign language or playing a stringed instrument - if they forgo phys ed.

Now, reputable researchers in medicine and education are identifying disturbing fallout: America has huge, growing numbers of fat, sedentary children with little knowledge of diet, activity and how the body functions best.

Worse long-term, obesity in childhood increases the likelihood of serious health problems in adulthood.

How to respond locally, if at all, is under review at the behest of school Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. It's an effort that later this year could result in recommended changes for the school board to consider.

The review is being done by a 12-member, community-based committee picked and led by Mary Nimmich, 45, a veteran teacher and three-sport coach who for four years has overseen Howard County schools' physical-education curriculum from kindergarten through high school. The committee is chaired by Jim Carlan, the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County's chief operating officer, father of five, grandfather of 12.

Nimmich talked about the work in a recent interview:

As far back as John F. Kennedy's presidency, at least, physical education was an American education essential. We had a Presidential Fitness awards program, enthusiasm for exercise, sports, oddly, the continuing boom in many youth sports, etc. What changed?

Globally, things changed about 10 years ago. Accountability is why. Standardized testing. Educators began to collect and analyze data - in this state it's the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program testing - to supposedly define the child. We scrutinize the numbers and give our schools a passing or failing grade on how or what our students are learning.

But nothing in that data measures the health-related wellness or quality of life of a child, and that's what we educators also should be about. We no longer ask if a child is happy. It's our obligation to create a healthy nation of learners.

Why would physical education be cut from school programs? It's been said, partly in jest, that many school policy-makers were probably poor phys-ed students and thus don't want to continue something they didn't like.

Poor programs in the past - not here in Howard County, because we don't have any - have given phys ed an identity crisis. Dodge ball that made targets of kids and the drill sergeants of calisthenics years ago gave us a bad name. We turned having fun into "he who throws the ball the hardest wins." Among others, we turned off a whole generation of females to the benefits of physical activity.

So the mentality became that if all we in physical education do all day is play, how could we be valued? That word f-u-n is supposedly not important in 21st-century education.

Aren't you saying, in part, that physical education became a sacrificial lamb to benefit of traditional academic subjects?

Absolutely. Right now, the big four subjects - math, reading, social studies and science - are all we care about. In Maryland, it's what's on the MSPAP that gets attention, and everything else has to wait while we drop dead of heart attacks.

Yet childhood obesity - even heart disease and high-blood pressure - are quickly becoming major issues in school-age children. So it's hard to imagine why we are asking our children to sit more and move less in a typical school day.

What would you like to see for Howard County's physical education program out of this review?

More time for instruction, especially in middle and high schools. Nationally and here, we are losing valuable instructional minutes for phys ed to other things.

We need for decision-makers to embrace our role, and we need to enhance our own identity by, if we get the opportunity, to produce everything that we know how to do - and do well.

I'm not a gym teacher. I'm a physical educator. I teach more of value in life and health than just sports.

What do you need from the public?

For every parent to ask how much phys ed their child gets in a week. If it's less than 90 minutes a week in elementary grades, ask at the school why. If it's only one quarter a year in middle school, ask why. In high schools, we need a strong group of people to say, "Our children are electing phys ed, but you only mandate one-half a year of it." I'd like to see that phys-ed requirement increased to one full credit - a full year - for graduating.

The public perceives phys ed as being athletics, about competition. They think we are sports. But we are not exclusively about athletics. Our job is to make you love and value movement for the rest of your life, whether that's hopping, skipping, jumping, golfing, skating, dancing - whatever you do.

We want you to understand and embrace the total benefits of a physically fit mind and body. That's the essence of what we do.

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