Schools in Minnesota have long had statewide standards to follow in math, reading and science. Now they'll have to do the same for physical education, thanks to a new state law Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed last month.
The new law has Jack Olwell, who teaches physical education in the Farmington school district, reviewing some of the ways he's learned to blend games like tag with spelling and word-building. The trick is to have children focus on the games so they don't notice that they're learning, said Olwell, who claims to have helped several students read to their grade level.
He also shares his methods with other teachers, which has its drawbacks.
"When we did it in Minneapolis, we had a pulled hamstring," he said. "In another district we had a sprained ankle because the adults are just like the kids, they want to get these done. Muscles aren't as limber; it's fun to watch them but it scares me."
Olwell's efforts as a physical education booster have also extended to the state Capitol, where he testified in support of the new statewide standards for physical education that just became law. Before it passed, there was no unified statewide effort before these standards were in place, he said.
"When we adopt them in unison as a state, then we're making a statement: 'Hey, we're in line with what's going on nationally.' " Olwell said.
States use standards to ensure some uniformity. The state establishes standards and school districts then buy the textbooks and other curriculum to help teachers meet those standards.
In math, for example, children in Minnesota must leave kindergarten knowing how to count forward and backward to 20. They also have to recognize basic shapes, like circles and triangles.
Statewide standards for physical education also will establish benchmarks. Children will have to leave kindergarten able to jog or continuously move for three to five minutes. They'll also have to be able to identify basic body parts, like hands, feet and nose.
Legislators also wrote the concept of sharing into the P.E. standards for kindergarten, along with the old adage of 'playing well with others.'
Standards grow more complex with each grade, so by ninth grade, for example, students will learn the mechanics and difference between a forehand and backhand in raquet sports.
Supporters say many districts probably won't have to change their P.E. courses because they've already been using such standards. But others will have to re-evaluate their programs.
The standards establish a floor that schools cannot sink below, said Rachel Callanan, a lobbyist with the American Heart Association who pushed for the law's passage.
"The reality is school districts have been cutting back physical education programs," Callanan said. "It's one of the first areas they look at when they're cutting programming at schools. This will really help stop that bleeding by setting that bar."
Minnesota is a latecomer to statewide P.E. standards. It had been one of just three states without them until the new law was signed. Having standards also will make Minnesota schools eligible for some federal grants related to physical education.
But supporters are calling this year's efforts a baby step. Even though standards will be in place, there is still no requirement that students take P.E. classes. The only law in Minnesota regarding P.E. is that schools offer it.
State Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said that's where the work fell short. But she said it would have been tough to pass a requirement that students take P.E. because several lawmakers saw that as an unfunded mandate during a time of extraordinarily tight budgets.
"We would have liked to have had something much stronger," Norton said. "But given the environment we're in, we didn't want to walk away from it."
But Norton said more children are becoming obese, so something had to be done.
She said her ultimate goal is to make P.E. required for all students in Minnesota, but it's not something she'll likely pursue until the state's budget improves.