Bump sees physical education inequality
State auditor says there's a link between obesity and lack of PE resources
STATE AUDITOR SUZANNE BUMP says a 2014 audit her office conducted of the state’s child obesity programs turned up income correlations that are strikingly similar to what CommonWealth uncovered in its report in the fall issue on high school sports (“Rich-poor divide in high school sports”).
CommonWealth found that sports participation in high schools across the state is tied fairly closely to the income level of the communities in which the schools are located. In the state’s 10 poorest communities, sports participation was 43 percent below the statewide average. In the 10 wealthiest communities, participation was 32 percent above the average.
Bump says the story reminded her of the audit her office conducted, which focused on whether communities were complying with state laws and regulations passed to deal with obesity. The audit found strong levels of compliance, but Bump said her staff also discovered a strong income correlation for obesity and school-based physical education programs.
“We didn’t look into the reasons for the income correlation because the purpose of the audit was to check on compliance, but we found a pretty strong connection,” Bump says.
A similar income correlation was found with physical education classes. Only two of the 60 schools surveyed by the auditor’s office offered as much physical education to students as health officials recommend, but lower-income communities generally offered fewer minutes of PE than wealthier communities.
Massachusetts used to require schools to provide 60 hours of PE each year, but in 1996 that requirement was lifted. Instead, schools were simply required to offer PE, with the determination about how much time should be devoted to PE left up to them. The change in law coincided with the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, which launched MCAS testing. Bump says the PE requirement was eased because many schools wanted to borrow time from physical education classes to use for work that might lead to higher scores on the MCAS test.
The US Surgeon General recommends 300 minutes of physical activity weekly for children, with 150 of those minutes coming during the school week. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends 150 minutes of PE each week for elementary school students and 225 minutes for middle school and high school students.
According to Bump’s audit, the average weekly time spent in physical education classes at elementary schools she surveyed ranged from 38 minutes to 90 minutes. At the high school level, the amount of PE time ranged from 22 minutes to 213 minutes.
Lower-income communities generally offered fewer PE minutes. Northbridge Middle School offered 22 minutes, according to Bump’s audit. Lynn Classical High School and the Clark Avenue middle school in Chelsea both offered an average of 38 minutes of PE per week. Glickman Elementary in Springfield offered 44 minutes and Huntington Elementary in Brockton offered 45 minutes.
By contrast, Concord-Carlisle High School, which serves two of the state’s wealthiest communities, offered 168 minutes. Norwell Middle School offered 113 minutes, Cottage Street Elementary in Sharon offered 80 minutes, and John D. Hardy Elementary in Wellesley offered 60 minutes.
Two of the schools surveyed by Bump satisfied the Surgeon General’s recommendation and only one came close to meeting the standard of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
Andre Ravenelle, the superintendent of the Fitchburg schools, is a great believer in the power of sports and physical fitness. He says he noticed six years ago that sports participation at Fitchburg High was slipping. The band’s numbers were also down. He attributed the decline to parents who were struggling to make ends meet and didn’t have the resources or the time to send their kids off to sports teams or music lessons.
“I realized that if kids were going to learn to play sports, they were only going to learn it from us in school,” he says. “If we didn’t do it, it wasn’t going to happen.”
Ravenelle launched sports at the middle school level and also expanded art and music offerings. Bump’s audit also found that Fitchburg High School’s PE commitment was among the highest in the state.Bump aides say the Fitchburg emphasis on PE was in stark contrast to some schools in wealthier communities, which privately admitted they eased back on PE time because they knew their students were doing a lot of exercise outside of school on sports teams.
Bump urged lawmakers to reinstitute a PE requirement of some sort to make sure all students are getting exercise on a daily basis. “Our public education system is our society’s great equalizer,” Bump said when she released her audit. “We should support complete wellness standards in our schools that foster the hearts, bodies, and minds of our young people.”