Getting Rid of Gym Class

In 2006, Michigan established a ‘merit curriculum’—a set of HS graduation requirements for every student in MI. There was a lot of fanfare around this standardizing and toughening up, with everyone from the governor to local representatives crowing about rigor and high expectations. Here’s the official blurb:

A high school diploma in Michigan will soon say a lot more about the graduate whose name it bears. It will tell employers that our students have mastered the reading, writing, and math skills required for success in the workplace. It will tell college and university admissions officers and career and technical schools the student is ready for the rigors of post-secondary education. It will tell the world — Michigan is committed to having the best-educated workforce.

Many large, suburban high schools in Michigan already had similar graduation requirements—four math credits, four ELA credits, three science and three specific social studies credits, plus two credits in a foreign language and one apiece in the arts, physical education and health, plus an online or technology class. Other schools, especially smaller and rural schools, were compelled to re-jigger their master schedules, course sequences and staffing.

When state legislatures start tinkering with professional work that used to be the strict purview of school districts and their on-site leadership, weird things happen. One of the big shockwaves of the Merit Curriculum was: Everybody takes algebra! Not only regular old, used-to-be-9th-grade algebra, but also Algebra II. Because that was the ticket to the best-educated workforce, evidently.

Schools pointed out that there was a stratum of students who might benefit from math courses other than algebra—personal finance, practical statistics or career-focused math—but the legislature responded with snotty remarks about teachers not believing their students could do higher math, soft bigotry, low expectations, weak math teaching and so on.

Other districts sighed and divided their Algebra I content into two-year sequences (same stuff, just slower) for kids who would have otherwise been scheduled into Practical Math. Some shifted from semesters to trimesters, so if a freshman failed the first trimester of Algebra, they could take it again in the same year.

And—needless to say—teachers rolled their eyes and did what they always do: adjusted. The Merit Curriculum was just another Big Education Idea that sounded good—success in the workplace!—and it was their job to move kids forward.

Because the Merit Curriculum has now been around for 14 years, it has been tweaked, amended and fine-tuned by districts and the Department of Ed. Now, the legislature wants to have another go; they’re suggesting that maybe Physical Education is negotiable.

The proposed bill also eliminates the arts credit requirement, the foreign language requirements, and Algebra II. The bill’s sponsor—a Republican—sounds just like the educators who warned, back in 2006, that the MC was going to overturn a lot of carefully calibrated, school-based curriculum development and, you know, meeting of student needs. Here’s what Jon Bumstead, the bill’s principal sponsor said:

“Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” adding that Lansing laws take away local control of education and “micromanage” districts. 

“Michigan does not trust our teachers, principals and superintendents to use their knowledge and expertise to teach our children,” he said. 

Bingo.

But the education community pointed all that out fourteen years ago, and the legislature decided they knew better.

Most of the linked article discusses the benefits of the Physical Education and Health requirement—fitness and weight control, knowledge about opioid abuse, depression and suicide prevention. Advocates make the strongest possible case for retaining the P.E. requirements—life and death.

The article’s headline calls physical education ‘gym’—but I know P.E. teachers have worked hard to get past a ‘throw out the balls’ stereotype and focus on personal fitness and critical health issues. What they do is very important.

But pitting disciplines against each other is an old education policy trick. The more requirements imposed, the less freedom students have to select courses that interest them–and the fewer electives offered.

It’s a delicate balance—adding a two-year foreign language requirement meant an immediate shortage of those teachers, while adding any new requirements made it increasingly difficult for kids to take choir or orchestra or a visual arts sequence for four years. Students with high-speed internet connections at home could knock off their tech requirement in the summer; students without tech capacity lost another hour of electives at school, using the computers there. Career and vocational classes suffered—and soon, there were shortages of entry-level technical and industrial workers.

This core argument—how to best prepare students for the future, given the resources available—is evergreen. The Committee of Ten (ten men, of course) sketched it out in 1892, and 25 years later, the Commission on Reorganizing Secondary Education found it necessary to develop new seven Cardinal Principles.

And we’ve been fighting about these questions ever since.

At the heart of the issue are our longstanding mental models of educational scarcity and standardization. We don’t have enough hours in the day, or the resources to offer all that students might find interesting or important, once they get to high school. We are more than wiling to take choice out of teenagers’ hands or demand a ‘higher bar’ so ‘diplomas mean something’—a rhetorical statement if there ever was one. We’re also worried about our personal educational turf.

Should HS students be required to take Physical Education? Don’t ask me. My opinion is biased.

Maybe we should ask students what they think they need, and let them refine their personal education plans, year by year. It’s another planning nightmare, but it might tell us something about what our students find worthwhile.

At the very least, this is work that belongs to a school and its professional staff. Not the legislature.

Basketball-iStock

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