Legislation pending in Congress, called the "Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids Act" (FIT Kids Act), would update current physical fitness standards in K-12 schools and hold educators accountable for a portion of their students’ health. If passed, the bill would redefine gym class from what it has come to mean for many students and teachers, and the bill also would implement new data tracking and reporting requirements that could necessitate a change in student information system (SIS) software.
Introduced by Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis., Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash., in July 2007, the FIT Kids Act now has 70 co-sponsors, and support for the bill is growing. The measure recently got another boost when several professional athletes publicly endorsed it.
If enacted, the bill would amend the No Child Left Behind Act to require that all schools, districts, and states include the quantity and quality of physical education (PE) in the "report cards" they send to parents and to Washington, D.C.
By next year, it’s estimated that 20 percent of children in the U.S. will be obese, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As students’ weight increases, so will their chances of developing diseases typically associated with adults such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, reports the American Heart Association (AHA).
"What better place than our schools to teach kids how to best nourish their body as well as their mind," said Rep. Kind, a member of the Congressional Fitness Caucus. "Ensuring that our schools are providing comprehensive physical education will give every child an opportunity–regardless of [his or her] background–to learn healthy habits and get moving. We will see the benefits in their math and reading scores, to get to the root of the obesity epidemic, and get kids on a healthy path early in life."
The FIT Kids Act, or H.R 3257, adds measures that would require changes to the state accountability system.
These measures include demonstrating progress toward meeting the national goal for required physical education of 150 minutes per week for students in elementary schools and 225 minutes per week for students in middle and high school. Schools also would need to measure attendance rates at required PE classes, and they would have to report on the space they use primarily for PE activities and whether they have a health council.
In addition, FIT Kids would amend the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling program, the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, and the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program to foster healthy habits and increased physical activity. It also would expand the uses of the Healthy High-Performing Schools program to support the provision of adequate space and facilities for supervised PE activities during and after school.
Other changes would include training parents to encourage their children to be active and eat healthy; professional development for teachers and principals; funding research on student health; and implementing pilot programs that would measure knowledge gain in PE classes and cognitive development in relation to physical activity skills.
"Not all children have role modeling at home, but this bill can make sure they have it at school. Giving kids the physical and mental benefits of exercise will help them excel in the classroom and throughout life," said Rep. Inslee.
If the bill passes, states would need to hold schools accountable for these changes in PE, meaning that SIS software also would need to change.
Frank Heins, vice president of SIS maker Weidenhammer, says that if it’s simply a matter of keeping track of PE hours, many data-tracking systems already in place could do this. The only problem would be tracking period-by-period attendance, because some schools do not track classes in this manner.
"The easiest way to track this would be via their scheduling systems, which by default keep a record of the classes the students are enrolled in for any particular term," said Heins.
"An SIS system with flexible, powerful attendance features would be needed for the attendance portion," explained John Schreck, marketing manager for Rediker Software. "Some SIS systems may require slight modifications to handle the minutes data. Some schools may have student ID cards or biometric technology that could be used for these tasks. If a school does not have a robust SIS in place, it could require a lot of manual entry into spreadsheets, et cetera."
Ray Ackerlund, director of marketing for Skyward, said the need to "provide easy, remote data entry options for physical education teachers, [because] they generally do not have access to computers in their teaching environments, will be critical for accurate and timely reporting."
Joe Kitchens, superintendent of the Western Heights Public Schools in Oklahoma City, Okla., said his district has software that would allow it to collect this type of data.
His district has teamed up with the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health on a study designed to collect this type of data, including nutritional information along with body mass index and other health indicators.
"I think most software applications that schools possess have the necessary tools to support the collection of this type of data, but absent is the development of an enterprise-based data exchange between disparate sectors and disparate software systems," Kitchens said. "This might be difficult in implementing."
He said the Schools Interoperability Framework Association (SIFA) would have to develop standards along these lines.
"I think a SIFA effort would need to engage a cross-section of data that would include engagement with HHS … and the [U.S. Department of Education] to support the development of a comprehensive exchange of relevant data objects," said Kitchens.
As the bill circulates through Congress, some educators and SIS vendors are questioning a few of its measures, as well as what kind of data-tracking changes it could prompt in the future.
"The real question is, would the government be looking for additional information to go along with the PE class attendance? For instance, they might eventually want to keep track of weight, height, and body mass index to see if the students are making progress," said Heins. "This would involve software that is not in place today and would take a couple of months to implement."
Bob Ginn, general manager for Century Consultants, said the bill’s measures could lead to some confusion.
"The minutes add up to about five 45-minute classes per week for middle school and high school students. Can schools make this kind of time for PE? Should after-school sports count as [PE] activity, and can this be substituted for PE? What about requiring information about PE spaces? How will these spaces be deemed appropriate? Should students have this reported in report cards? What about financially strapped schools? Health is important, but is that the top priority for them?" asked Ginn.
Some organizations believe the bill should include even stricter requirements.
For example, the AHA believes that no student should be allowed to opt out of PE to prepare for other classes or standardized tests. PE teachers should not allow waivers or substitutions, and students should not be allowed to substitute activities such as sports, ROTC, or marching band for PE instruction, the group says. Among other measures, the AHA wants to require PE for graduation and count the PE grade as part of a student’s overall grade-point average.
Recently, players from the National Football League came to Capitol Hill to talk about the need for better PE in schools.
"Nowadays, kids aren’t out playing in the streets and hanging out and having a good time," said Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall at a news conference to support the FIT Kids Act. "They’re sitting in front of video games and eating a lot of fast food. Even my kids!"
Players joined lawmakers, health advocates, and students for a pep rally on the West Lawn of the Capitol. Players led the children in jumping jacks, stretching, and running-in-place exercises and signed autographs.
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