Exploring #PhysEd in the United States of America: Part of the 2021 Series

Global Perspectives


This blog series seeks to explore how Physical Education is designed and practiced in countries around the world. The intention is to give insight and hopefully inspiration to help improve physical education for all young people, both now and for the future.

If you have insight from a country we have not yet covered, then we would love to hear from you, please get in touch.

UNESCO published its ‘Quality Physical Education’ (QPE) guidelines for policymakers back in 2017. It includes a great video clip and infographic identifying some of the wide range of benefits of QPE and the following extract reminding us that PE is not just a nice to have in education, it is a human right for all children and young people!

“Every human being has a fundamental right of access to physical education and sport, which are essential for the full development of his personality. The freedom to develop physical, intellectual and moral powers through physical education and sport must be guaranteed both within the educational system and in other aspects of social life.”

The UNESCO Charter of Physical Education and Sport (1978)

Exploring the United States

In Context

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

As I am sure all readers know, the United States of America (USA) is located in North America and consists of 50 states. It is the world’s 3rd or 4th largest country by area at 9.8 million km2 and has a population of more than 328 million people. In terms of population, it houses over twice as many people compared to Russia and has five times the population of the UK, and is also over 100 times the size of the UK.

The capital is Washington DC but New York City (NYC), also on the Eastern coast, is the most populated city with over 8 million people distributed over 784 km2. In contrast, London has nearly 9 million people but over twice the area at 1,572 km2. Each state has its own jurisdiction over education with some oversight from the federal system as directed by national politics.

According to the National Centre for Education Statistics (NCES) there were 130,930 schools (2017/2018). These schools cater for children from kindergarten (aged 5) through to seniors / 12th grade (aged17/18), this is typically referred to as K-12. More specifically these schools numbers included 87,498 elementary (primary) schools, 26,727 secondary (high) schools, 15,804 combined schools and 901 other (for example special education or alternative provision). Roughly ¼ of these are private fee-paying schools.

Exams are sat at the end of the semester with 6 subjects at primary, 6-8 subjects at junior high (depending on district) and 6 subjects at high school that unlock college study. They are called SAT papers and most questions are multiple choice. At the high school level, students have to earn a set number of credits to graduate – this varies from state to state and from district to district as you can see here. Many states have a minimum state requirement but allow individual school districts to determine how many credits are required for graduation. Similar to the UK, there are mandated credits that students must earn over the course of their 4-year high school career; typically these encompass Maths, English, Social Studies, Science, Health and Physical Education and additionally, students must earn a set number of elective credits. Often, particularly for students planning to go on to higher education, this will involve a foreign language. However, not all states require physical education for graduation! Many allow waivers or substitutions for physical education (e.g. a student who participates in a school sport receives credit for that; a student involved in marching band may use that towards their ‘physical education’ credit etc).

In Policy

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) was created in 1980 by combining offices from several federal agencies. It has 4,400 employees and $68 billion budget are dedicated to:

  • Establishing policies on federal financial aid for education and distributing as well as monitoring those funds.
  • Collecting data on America’s schools and disseminating research.
  • Focusing national attention on key educational issues.
  • Prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal access to education.

Below this there is a ‘tradition of local control and state responsibility’ . This leaves individual states responsible for their approach to physical education. Many physical educators however have called for a National Curriculum for physical education but that is not the current situation.

SHAPE America – Society of Health and Physical Educators serves as the voice for 200,000+ health and physical education professionals across the United States. The organization’s extensive community includes a diverse membership of health and physical educators, as well as advocates, supporters, and 50+ state affiliate organizations’.

SHAPE America has a vision for ‘a nation where all children are prepared to lead healthy, physically active lives’.

Learning in PhysEd is typically focused around three domains of learning:

  1. Cognitive (knowledge of movement)
  2. Affective (feelings & attitudes)
  3. Psychomotor (movement literacy)

According to a 2015 guidance document from SHAPE America there is a focus on physical literacy, where ‘the physically literate individual’ is described as follows:

  • ‘Has learned the skills necessary to participate in a variety of physical activities.
  • Knows the implications and the benefits of involvement in various types of physical activities.
  • Participates regularly in physical activity.
  • Is physically active.
  • Values physical activity and its contributions to a healthful lifestyle.

These guiding principles were used to create the National Standards for K-12 PE. The National Standards for K-12 Physical Education are as follows:

  • STANDARD 1: The physically literate individual demonstrates competency in a variety of motor skills and movement patterns.
  • STANDARD 2: The physically literate individual applies knowledge of concepts, principles, strategies and tactics related to movement and performance.
  • STANDARD 3: The physically literate individual demonstrates the knowledge and skills to achieve and maintain a health‐enhancing level of physical activity and fitness.
  • STANDARD 4: The physically literate individual exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.
  • STANDARD 5: The physically literate individual recognizes the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self‐expression and/or social interaction.

At the time of writing, these standards were being reviewed with a range of stakeholders invited to contribute and provide their voice to influence the future approach. You can listen in to one of those insightful discussions via the Playing with Research in Health and Physical Education podcast here.

The SHAPE America 2015 guidance document captures ‘four essential components that provide the structure’ for physical education as:

SHAPE America publishes the ‘SHAPE of the Nation document’ every few years – the most current one is from 2016 and it breaks down the requirements and provision of physical education state by state at all levels.

In Practice

It is helpful to bring two individual perspectives to life here. Firstly, from Nate Babcock who is based in California, has a strong voice, influence and passion for grounding Physical Education in a coherent vision and purpose. He is focused on democratic and meaningful approaches that prioritize the needs of both individual students and the public, rather than future ill-health prevention and the meeting of standards. Secondly, Jo Bailey, who is based in Wisconsin and similarly has a great presence in the HPE space as a regular contributor to conferences and previous President of WHPE. In fact, for a moment, we considered providing two separate blog contributions as it appears, quite like many other countries, that the ‘national’ picture for PE is quite fragmented.

Perspective 1 – from Nate

Here is what Nate had to say:

“I can only speak from my own limited exposure to the American brand of Physical Education, which comes from what I see and have seen in my own local context in California. I have also engaged with the general discourse in places like SHAPE America’s standards/grade-level-outcomes, State and National PE Conferences, local and national advocacy materials, and social media/message boards.

From that limited exposure, what I see as being common practice in PE is something akin to a ‘health intervention via physical activity’. What I mean by this is that the field seems to have decided in advance that students NEED TO and/or MUST be fit and healthy, and the way to do this is through a healthy, physically active lifestyle.

So, at its core, PE is about and for health and fitness. Consequently, the primary value and purpose of movement and physical activity is that it leads to fitness and health. And of course, the best type of physical activity in this approach would be Moderate-to-Vigorous (MVPA). Thus, it is not surprising to see the recommendation to ensure that kids are engaged in MVPA at least 50% of every class period.

There is another secondary paradigm that tends to dominate the thinking around PE, and this is the motor competence paradigm. With this, the emphasis is on ensuring students develop competence in a wide variety of movements and/or skills, most of which are sport skills. The general thinking behind this approach is that the more competent students are, or the more movements and skills they are competent in, the greater the chance that they will be physically active, and thus healthy for a lifetime.

The basic formula looks like this: students need to and should be fit and healthy, and to do this they need to move often and well.

From what I can see, in practice this tends to look like:

  1. Teachers create activities that demand or require a lot of MVPA. They exercise, assign workouts, run the mile, play games that get students’ heart rates up, etc. The point here is to directly impact the students’ fitness levels.
  2. Teachers “teach” skills via traditional modes of instruction (i.e., command style) and then give students time to practice them via drill-based or game-based activities. Assessment against some sort of norm or standard (i.e., a “mature pattern”) usually follows, which is typically used primarily for grading purposes.

This thing called ‘Physical Education’, at least here in the states, is not really ‘Physical’ and can hardly be called an ‘Education’. Instead, it is more a programme of ‘Health and Physical Activity Training’. Rather than being about the ‘Physical’, it seems to be about ‘Physical Activity’. Perhaps, rather than being about educating, it is about training and disciplining bodies? One way to conceive of PE in the states is as the moulding or shaping of bodies into preferred shapes, and I feel it is not a mere coincidence that our national PE organization is called “SHAPE America.” I know the organization didn’t intend to reinforce that particular conception of PE, but I do think it was a sort of Freudian slip. The implied purpose of PE, for many people and for many years, has been to get people into “shape,” and regardless of how well-intended the people of SHAPE America were when they adopted the name, they still reinforced the paradigm that PE is for shaping bodies into shape. This paradigm is hardly what I would call an educational approach. I want much more from PE than something that more closely resembles personal training than education.

I have two primary concerns with American PE as I see it:

  1. Its starting point, or foundation, is anti-democratic. It begins with a very narrow prescription of what students need to or must become. This is an imposition of a particular set of values that are hardly universal and is thus an abuse of the power and authority of the teachers and schools that administer PE in these ways. We should not be in the business of deciding for people what and how they must become. And because of this orientation, PE tends to privilege certain bodies over others, which leads me to my next concern:
  2. Its methods probably don’t work very well anyway. It is not designed for the benefit of all students. In other words, it is far too exclusive. Much of PE’s potential to enrich & enhance the lives of ALL students is squandered in the chase to fulfil a narrow vision and meet arbitrary standards and outcomes.

My recommendation for the transformation of practice begins with the shifting of the why from what feels like a ‘move to be fit and healthy’ agenda to a better one. One where PE is about and for the expression, extension, and expansion of our embodied capabilities. Students should have the right to do so in schools, and all for the enhancement of our shared engagement with the world. Such an approach is aimed not at narrow conceptions of fitness and health. Instead, it is aimed at personal, social, and ecological well-being and providing the right growing conditions for students to flourish now and as adults surely that is what motivates so many educators anyway?

Physical Education’s role in this alternative mission is to provide students with access to meaningful and transformative practices primarily involving an exploration and experimentation of our interconnected bodies. These bodies, OUR bodies, are always both a subject and an object. In other words, we are a body that lives life, that is affected by and experiences it in very particular ways. Consequently, how our bodies experience as they interact with the world really matters. But as bodies that also affect other bodies, as an object for their own becoming, how we affect them also matters a great deal.

My perspective is that PE should be about and for the responsible and meaningful deployment of our interconnected embodied capabilities for living well together. To do this, it must be more inclusive and it must meet people where they are at. Rather than trying to take them on a journey to somewhere specific, like a destination (the healthy, physically active individual), what I try to do for our students is to work with them to make it more of an adventure with an indefinite number of legitimate stops and starts along the way”.

Perspective 2 – from Jo

Here is what Jo had to say:

“In Wisconsin (WI) where I am, 23.5 credits are required for graduation. Each credit is typically a year of study; however, many credits are broken down into ½ credit increments, allowing courses to last for one or two years. In my school district, all physical education classes are worth 1/2 a credit and last for a semester or 18 weeks. In 2011, a bill was passed into law in WI allowing school districts to allow a student who participates in a school sport or another organised physical activity to complete an additional 0.5 credit in English, social studies, mathematics, science, or health education in lieu of 0.5 credit in physical education. As we know, that is not PE and thankfully our school board agreed this waiver is unhelpful, so we did not adopt it. Unfortunately, this sort of advocacy, and strong leadership is often called upon due to the threat of marginalisation of HPE and Arts subjects. In California there are proposals to ‘eliminate all physical education teachers in elementary schools’ in a bid to slash budgets. This is just one recent example of challenges being faced by the subject on a weekly basis.

SHAPE America has guidance documents on what the provision of physical education should look like. However, the reality is very different from state to state and within states between school districts. Even if there are state mandates around the provision of physical education, because they are largely unfunded mandates, they do not get followed. For example:

As far as curriculum goes, we have the SHAPE America National Standards and Grade Level Outcomes, published in 2013. As mentioned earlier, these are currently being updated. These are intended as a guide/ scope and sequence for teachers. However, it is not mandatory to use these. Each state also has its own physical education standards and outcomes – some states have directly adopted the SHAPE America standards while others have modified them or created their own. I was on the Physical Education standards writing committee for Wisconsin last year when we re-wrote and updated the state physical education standards and outcomes.

Districts determine what curriculum they use for physical education. Some use canned curriculums (SPARK is one example) but many develop their own. At D. C. Everest Senior High School where I teach, the entire curriculum was overhauled as I arrived in 2004. We moved from a PE1 and PE2 offering to a multiple class offering for students, designed to reflect the different interests and choices of students.

All of the curricula were developed by us, the physical education staff. They are reviewed, tweaked, and updated each year. One example of a popular and successful programme we deliver is ‘Fitness for Life’ which is a core class that all students take. This introduces them to fitness concepts, training principles while exposing them to a variety of different activities, many of which are full course offerings they may wish to take later in the high school. These include:

  • Personal Defence (several levels here; we have had multiple students gain their black belt over multiple semesters of taking the class)
  • Strength and conditioning – primarily aimed at students involved in school sports but open to all. Training is specific to seasons and sports
  • Adventure Ed
  • Outdoor and Adventurous Pursuits
  • Net and Racket games
  • Independent PE
  • Lifeguarding
  • Dance and Fitness

All of our classes are standards and grade level outcomes based. The change in our curriculum was coupled with a federal grant which allowed us to massively upgrade our facilities – for example all elementary schools had climbing traverse walls put in. We had climbing walls and low elements installed at the middle school and junior high. At the senior high, we got a high ropes course, climbing wall, low elements and many other equipment upgrades in order to allow us to provide these classes for our students. The grant included training for staff, technology (heart rate monitors, pedometers, fitness testing equipment) and a suite of cardio machines (treadmills/ bikes/ ellipticals). I have to say, we have a very robust PE program. Unfortunately, not all programs are like ours. Many, especially at the high school level, do not meet the needs of all students and have remained unchanged for a long time. At high school level, the importance of coaching is often emphasised over the importance of a quality physical education program. This is either allowed, overlooked or perhaps even not realised by administration”.

If you would like to read more about the course offer at D.C. Everest then Jo has kindly provided a link here.

In Conclusion

As with so many countries, there is clearly a picture of the good, the bad and the ugly in terms of policy pressures and practice when it comes to physical education. It has been fascinating to hear about the huge differences between expectations, jurisdiction and everyday experiences that are received by students in different states, districts, and schools.

Risto Marttinen, researcher in PE and host of ‘Playing with research in health and physical education’ podcast, has great insight from his role and rich conversations. If you have not yet accessed his podcast then you really must but here are his thoughts which provide a nice summary:

“In the USA, teachers are not trained the same way as they are in other countries. For instance, in Finland a teacher goes to school for five years and gets a Master’s, engages in research and takes immersive classes in pedagogy. In the USA we spend four years in college (theoretically), two of those years are in general education (math, English, history etc.) and two years in your major. However, part of those “major” courses can be classes like anatomy and physiology, exercise science etc. and you may only have 3-6 pedagogy courses before a 16-week student teaching session. Different states/universities have different systems. Some rely heavily on early field experiences, others have a longer full-year student teaching experience. As it is with curriculum in the USA, the PETE programs vary dramatically from state to state, even university to university. Consequently, US teachers end up a bit less prepared out of the gates…again depending on the state and institution they graduate from. In addition to this, unlike the system in Australia or New Zealand for example, The US curriculum is not underpinned by theory”.

The revisions to SHAPE America standards provide a great opportunity to update and reframe what physical education stands for across the country. This could be a great moment for further reform. However, even if the intention and articulation of these standards capture a fit for purpose set of standards that are appropriate to the needs and motivations of every single child, it will be down to state, district and school boards to enforce them. On top of this, physical educators will need to adjust their practice and focus accordingly.


  1. Physical and health education is a marginalised area of the curriculum and is often under threat or circumvented with waivers. This highlights how the value of physical education needs to be elevated on the national and state educational agenda
  2. Physical Education has the potential to benefit school, communities and individuals enormously but that requires very careful programming and a skilled workforce
  3. Agreeing, communicating and enforcing curricula ambitions and standards is a huge challenge in big countries to ensure accurate interpretation, conformity and flexibility to meet local context needs
  4. Physical literacy, health inequalities and social justice are high on the agenda
  5. Opinion seems split in terms of the relative benefits and drawbacks to quantitative evidence of learning and progress within PE
  6. Need to be careful not to dilute the subject by trying to deliver against too many standards or deviate too far towards physical activity instruction rather than broader physical education experiences
  7. Health and fitness-based activities has strong foundations in the curriculum offer.

If you have a different perspective to that described above or would like to contribute to a similar blog on a different country, then we would love to hear from you. Please contact us.

About the authors

Will Swaithes – teacher, teacher educator and specialist leader of education (SLE) for Physical Education based in Nottinghamshire, UK

Nate Babcock @coachnateb

Elementary PhysEd teacher and District Coordinator in California.

Jo Bailey, NBCT @LovePhyEd

Secondary PhysEd teacher in Weston, Wisconsin (US) and past president of WHPE

Risto Marttinen @RistoMarttinen

Researcher in physical education and after-school programs. Host of @theHPEpodcast

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