Most public elementary school students in San Francisco are not getting enough physical education to meet state standards, according to a University of California, San Francisco, study released Thursday.
The city's elementary students are also performing below the state average on physical fitness tests, according to data from the California Department of Education.
The state requires schools to provide children in first through sixth grades with 200 minutes of physical education every 10 school days. But the UCSF researchers found that fifth graders in the San Francisco Unified School District had PE for 114 minutes, on average.
At many schools in the study, teachers did not schedule adequate time for PE, much less make sure students raised their heart rates long enough to meet state requirements.
The UCSF research highlights a long-standing problem in many California elementary schools, one exacerbated by the state's budget crisis and by an increased emphasis on standardized testing. In an effort to spare core academic programs, some schools and districts have cut physical education teachers. At the same time, many elementary school teachers, who are often responsible for leading PE classes, end up devoting a large percentage of the 200 mandated minutes to other educational priorities.
“It’s an unfunded mandate,” said Christina Goette, a senior health program planner for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which runs the Shape Up San Francisco Coalition. The coalition commissioned the study.
“We have furlough days in San Francisco. We have increased testing with No Child Left Behind, and all of those factors conspire against our children getting PE,” Goette said.
In elementary schools, the missed gym time was often dedicated to academic lessons, researchers found. Bad weather, field trips and school assemblies also cut into PE.
“I think that schools operate under the assumption that taking time away from academics is going to mean that their test scores won’t go up as much,” said Dr. Kristine Madsen, an assistant professor at UCSF’s Department of Pediatrics, who led the study. “The evidence suggests that you can absolutely let kids get activity without harming scores.”
The UCSF researchers studied fifth graders at 20 randomly selected elementary schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, as well as seventh graders in four middle schools and ninth graders in four high schools. The researchers observed physical education classes and interviewed teachers, principals and parents about physical education.
On average, fifth graders in the district had only 150 minutes of physical education scheduled. But when researchers visited the schools, they found that even those minutes did not always take place.
“When we showed up to actually observe what was happening, they were getting even less,” said Hannah Thompson, a UCSF researcher.
By contrast, all of the district's middle and high schools in the study met the state's requirements for time spent on PE.