Testing has driven the nation's education agenda during the No Child Left Behind decade, but now another debate is emerging: how much physical education children need during the school day.
As childhood obesity rates climb to disturbing levels, some say schools must do more than hold daily recess when it comes to keeping children fit. At the same time, a growing body of research suggests that exercise boosts students' learning and academic achievement.
The debate is likely to pick up speed this year as Congress is due to rewrite the decade-old No Child Left Behind law. A bipartisan group of House members supports language that would pressure schools to offer more physical education. The group wants to force school officials to collect annual data about how much physical activity their students get.
Across the nation, there is evidence that schools have reduced PE during an era of budget cuts, said Francesca Zavacky, senior program manager with the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.
And because most states don't have policies requiring physical education, they can easily trim the programs during economic crunch times.
"Physical education is not an accessory," Zavacky said. "It is definitely an important part of the core and supports every other subject."
A 2010 report from NASPE showed that only five states require PE for students every year from kindergarten through 12th grade. Federal law does not require physical education. Most states have their own standards.
North Carolina requires schools to provide 30 minutes of "moderate to vigorous" physical activity daily for students in grades K-8. The state also specifies that the exercise cannot be withheld or given in excess as a form of punishment.
In addition, the state recommends that elementary schools work toward having 150 minutes per week of instruction with a certified physical education teacher. The weekly recommendation for middle schools is 225 minutes per week for students, including both PE and health education.
Meeting the minimum
Fifty-one percent of North Carolina's school district health advisory councils report that all of their elementary schools meet the 150-minute standard of PE with a certified PE teacher, according to a new report prepared for the State Board of Education. Fifty-two percent say their middle schools provide 225 minutes a week of health and physical education. Health education includes instruction on drug prevention, anti-bullying and pregnancy prevention.
The state has not measured whether school districts have cut PE instruction to cope with budget cuts in the current year, said Paula Hildebrand, who oversees health programs with the state Department of Public Instruction.
But the PE figures in the new report show slight improvement over 2009 and 2010.
Some schools are finding ways to boost physical activity without having more time in the school day and more money for PE teachers and equipment.
At Fuller Elementary in Raleigh, the school started a 5K running club two days a week after school. With a resulting monetary award, the staff worked out a deal with a local store to provide running shoes for $35 a pair. The shoes are kept at school, and students can check them out for track practice.
Also two days a week, Fuller has walking club in the morning before the first bell. Students walk the track and earn a rubber band every time they complete 12 laps, equal to one mile.
Classes compete, and a bulletin board plots the miles logged. This week, the tally stood at a combined 2,401 miles for those students participating.
"It builds a lot of school spirit. The kids really take it seriously," said Chris Scott, principal, who reminds students in daily announcements to choose "white milk" instead of the sugary chocolate or strawberry flavored.
Later this month, A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh and its PTA will offer its first "Get Real, Get Healthy" family health fair to educate parents on healthy choices. The fair will include tips on healthy cooking, an appearance by a former Olympic sprinter and basic medical information.
"We look for every opportunity to infuse ideas about health, wellness and athletic participation," said Debbie Powell, a PE teacher at Combs.
Walking to raise money
Most PE teachers today multitask, Powell said, incorporating math during basketball dribbling or integrating dance with athletic movement.
"We really do have to get a lot into a small amount of time," she said.
At Davis Drive Elementary in Cary, the PTA holds a walkathon to raise money instead of selling wrapping paper or cookie dough. The PE staff will help children learn to track their calorie intake and exercise. Those who do can win a T-shirt.
"It's just become a natural part of our day," said Chip Mack, the principal.
If schools adopt various strategies such as these, they can begin to make a dent in the obesity problem, Hildebrand said.
"Obviously there is not a silver bullet or we would have done it by now," she said. "It's just a very complex issue."
Rob Hotakainen of McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.