A clash between Oregon’s ambitions for its public-school students and its ability to fully invest in the system has many consequences. One example of this decades-long disconnect is physical education programming in our elementary and middle schools.
Brain research shows that daily exposure to movement is essential for students’ cognitive, emotional, academic, and physical well-being. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with the Brain in Mind, explains the brain-body connection. “Evidence from imaging sources, anatomical studies, and clinical data shows that moderate exercise enhances cognitive processing. It also increases the number of brain cells,” he notes.
Academic performance depends more on the integration of movement and cerebral work than on the dominant model of “sit and git” learning. OEA’s pursuit of a well-rounded education system for our 570,000 public school students includes Elementary PE as an essential part of that comprehensive program. Our work on this topic has included the development of academic content standards for physical education, as well as participation in the discussion of mandated minutes.
OEA member Don Zehrung, who spent 38 years as a physical education teacher in the Beaverton School District and 20 years as an adjunct at Portland State University, has long led the way on these efforts. For his efforts, Zehrung said, “One of the proudest moments I have had is in receiving the OEA Political Action Award, which recognized my work on behalf of my colleagues and students.” The association bestowed the award in 2004, but Don didn’t rest on his laurels.
In 2007, he was a lead advocate in the effort to pass House Bill 3141 in the Oregon Legislature. Championed by Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), the bill required school districts to provide all K-5 students with 150 minutes per week of physical education and 225 minutes for students in grades 6 through 8.
According to the Oregon Department of Education (ODE), the law called for “a sequential, developmentally appropriate curriculum designed, implemented, and evaluated to help students develop the knowledge, motor skills, self-management skills, attitudes, and confidence needed to adopt and maintain physical activity throughout their lives. At least 50 percent of the physical education class time is to be actual physical activity with as much time as possible spent in moderate physical activity."
As a part of this legislation, which contemplated a 10-year ramp up to full compliance, ODE was directed to produce an annual report on PE minutes offered by each district. OEA won support for language that also required a PE facility inventory each year.
The 2015 report showed clearly that districts were unprepared to implement the unfunded mandate. In fact, fewer districts were offering the required minutes in 2015 than in 2007, when the law was passed, due in large measure to the budget cuts stemming from the Great Recession and its budgetary aftermath.
As Zehrung noted, "Oregon schools made little or no progress toward the requirements of HB 3141 during the 10 year ‘phase in’.”
Concerned about the looming 2017-2018 school year deadline for full implementation, Sen. Courtney assembled an informal work group of stakeholders to revisit the topic and recommend legislation that preserved the goal but fine-tuned the law. OEA worked closely with physical educators, administrators, health advocates, and school board representatives to fix technical issues and extend the deadline for district compliance.
Rallying this coalition in its work, Sen. Courtney said, “We need to get kids moving. We need for them to be physically active if we want them to be mentally active. We can’t let up. We have to keep working hard until every elementary student is enrolled in a healthy level of physical education each year."
Responding to that charge, the work group produced Senate Bill 4, which passed both houses of the legislature unanimously and was signed into law this summer by Gov. Kate Brown.
SB 4 prorates the minutes required for shortened school weeks due to holidays, in-service days, inclement weather, field trips, and schools operating a four-day schedule. It makes exceptions to compliance for state budget cuts if the budget dips below current-service levels, and it allows for other exigencies as well. It establishes a gradual increase in minutes and calls for more work to be done to work through middle school scheduling challenges. The law also recognizes that in some schools, the sixth-grade year is considered an elementary tier and in others, a middle school grade. Finally, it offers schools flexibility in use of alternative methods for up to 45 minutes of the weekly required physical activity, including “brain breaks," structured recess, and other innovations – all with the guidance of licensed PE specialists. ODE will work with physical educators to develop technical assistance to districts so that alternative activities meet the requirements of Oregon’s PE standards (see sidebar for a summary).
Students in grades K-5 (or K-6, if sixth grade is at the elementary school) will be given at least 120 minutes of PE per week by 2019-2020 and the full 150 minutes in 2020-2021 (a three-year delay for full required minutes). Students in middle school will have at least 180 minutes of PE per week in the 2021-2022 school year and the full 225 minutes by 2022-2023 (a five-year delay).
A key issue that emerged in coalition work on this law is middle school block scheduling. As most districts offer it, a student’s schedule is composed of required core courses and two electives. PE, when offered at many schools, is a semester-long option, either as a core course or an elective. To offer it as a yearlong core class poses challenges in that it could eliminate an elective, lengthen the school day, or present other scheduling issues.
For instance, for students who are in English Language Learner programs (ELL), it could mean no electives at all. For this reason, SB 4 directs ODE to convene a work group of interested education stakeholders to consider educational best practices, resource and facility availability, scheduling issues, staffing, and any other barriers to middle school minutes that may be discovered. The department must propose a responsive legislative solution to help with middle school compliance by November 15, 2018. OEA will be an active participant in this follow-up work. Meanwhile, the PE implementation clock is ticking.
To that point, Don Zehrung observed that the additional years granted to phase in Oregon’s elementary PE offerings has brought “improved commitment from the school constituencies” to implement the law, which will provide many benefits for Oregon's students.