Poll finds lack of physical education in public schools a concern of parents

Physical education children

Almost seven in 10 parents say their child’s school does not provide daily physical education even though experts recommend 150 to 225 minutes per school week

For immediate release: December 2, 2013

Princeton, N.J. – In a time of heightened worries that U.S. public schools do not give enough emphasis to math and English, a new poll released today finds that many parents are concerned about inadequate levels of physical education. NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) polled 1,368 parents of public school children in grades K-12 on a range of issues around education and health in the their child’s school. One in four parents (25%) said their child’s school gives too little emphasis to physical education, compared with  one in seven who say the same thing about reading and writing (14%) or math (15%).

In addition, about three in 10 parents (28%) give a low grade (C, D or F) to their child’s school on providing enough time for physical education, while almost seven in 10 parents (68%) report that their child’s school does not provide daily physical education classes, a recommendation included in CDC guidelines for schools. Just under two in 10 parents (18%) give a low grade to their child’s school on providing quality facilities for physical exercise, like playgrounds, ball fields, or basketball courts.

“In a period with a significant public debate about the content of educational reform, it is significant that many parents feel that more physical education is needed in the schools,” said Robert Blendon, Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at HSPH.

These concerns expressed by some parents are shared by experts in childhood health.

“Experts recommend that high school and middle school students get 225 minutes of physical education per week during the school year, but in fact many don’t get that much,” said Dwayne Proctor, who directs the childhood obesity team at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). “Parents should let their state boards of education and their local school districts know that they want more PE for their kids, and encourage state and local policymakers to provide the necessary resources for full implementation.”

Currently, less than half of youths meet the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommendation of at least 60 minutes of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. This increases youths’ health risks and can jeopardize their well-being throughout their lives. Physical activity is also critical to children’s cognitive development and academic success.

NPR delves into the poll results with a series of reports airing this week and also available at NPR.org. Pieces from the NPR Science and National Desks explore schools’ efforts to address student health needs, including the effectiveness of later start times on the performance of sleep-deprived adolescents, reducing education-related stresses children face, allowing enough time for lunch, improving math and science classes, and career readiness.

Earlier this year the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report, sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School, which concluded that schools can and should play a major role in both encouraging and providing opportunities for children and teens to be more active.

This poll underscores the need for many of the actions recommended by the IOM report, including:

  • School districts should provide high-quality physical education, equal to 150 minutes per week for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for middle and high school students.
  • Students should engage in additional vigorous or moderately intense physical activity throughout the school day through recess, dedicated classroom activities, and other opportunities.
  • Additional opportunities for physical activity before and after school hours should be accessible to all students.

The poll also found that a substantial number of parents in the United States do not believe the nation’s schools are sufficiently preparing students for future careers. Almost a third of parents (31%) responded that they do not believe their children’s schools are sufficiently teaching professional conduct and a work ethic, and 29% do think the schools are helping them to choose areas of study that will lead to a good job.

“In today’s knowledge economy, education paves a path to a good job, and a good job leads to better health by improving access to medical care and the resources to live in healthier neighborhoods,” said Proctor. “Schools need to provide not only the right curriculum, but also help students develop the skills they will need to succeed in work and life.”

View the report.


The poll from which these results are taken is part of an ongoing series of surveys developed by researchers at the Harvard Opinion Research Program (HORP) at the Harvard School of Public Health in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR. The Education and Health in Schools poll asked questions on a range of education and health issues. This release focuses on several key findings on health in schools.  The research team consists of the following members at each institution: Harvard School of Public Health: Robert J. Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and Executive Director of HORP; John M. Benson, Research Scientist and Managing Director of HORP; Kathleen J. Weldon, Research and Administrative Manager. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Fred Mann, Associate Vice President, Communications; Carolyn Miller, Senior Program Officer, Research and Evaluation; and Ari Kramer, Communications Officer. NPR: Anne Gudenkauf, Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Joe Neel, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, Science Desk; Steve Drummond, Senior Supervising Editor, National Desk; Vickie Walton-James, Deputy Senior Supervising Editor, National Desk; Cindy Johnston, Senior Editor, National Desk; Lynette Clementson, Senior Supervising Editor, Morning Edition; Matt Thompson, Editorial Product Manager.

Interviews were conducted via telephone (including both landline and cell phone) by SSRS of Media (PA), August 6 – September 8, 2013, among a nationally representative sample of 1368 adults who said they were one of the people in their household most knowledgeable about the education of the children in the household who attended a public school or public charter school in grades K-12 during the school year ending in May or June 2013. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish. The margin of error for total respondents is +/-3.5 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Possible sources of non-sampling error include non-response bias, as well as question wording and ordering effects. Non-response in telephone surveys produces some known biases in survey-derived estimates because participation tends to vary for different subgroups of the population. To compensate for these known biases and for variations in probability of selection, sample data are weighted by landline/cell phone use, homeownership, Census region, number of adults in the household, the demographics of a randomly selected child who attended a public school or public charter school in grades K-12 during the school year ending in May or June 2013 (sex, age, grade in school, and race/ethnicity), and the number of such children in the household. Other techniques, including random-digit dialing and replicate subsamples are used to ensure that the sample is representative.

For more information:

Todd Datz

photo: iStockphoto.com

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