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The Double Standard of Physical Education in Schools

Drop and Give Me 20!!

I had a love-hate relationship with gym class in school. While I loved to run around and play games, I was a heavy child after the age of 9 and gym class was fraught with multiple opportunities for public embarrassment. P.E. class was often made up of an adult asking me to do things which I knew I could not do. Push ups, climbing a rope, running laps. I was somewhat athletic but was also aware that I was different and just could not do the things that other kids could do, even at a young age. And my gym teachers seemed to expect that I could do all of these activities. There was noticeable disappointment from instructors when I struggled or refused to participate because I knew how painfully shamed I would feel if I even attempted. So, why the expectation? Why the assumptions?


Simply put. I was a boy.


If we were to work from the end of the conversation, it should really lead us to Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. (I’m sure you all saw that coming!) This landmark legislation was meant to address discrimination in all areas of education based on gender, and not just on the sports field. Most of us identify Title IX implementation with sports programs at major universities and less so with the critical mandate that physical education programs in K-12 settings also address well embedded inequality due to gender bias. Conservative voices and political activists in the 1980’s quickly attempted to work on weakening this legislation but the positive impact for millions of women in athletic programs over the years has been substantial. Universities and colleges, according to Title IX, were forced to provide equal opportunity, and funding, for female athletic programs. But why the focus on younger grades at all? Why not just focus on equalizing funding of athletic programming and competitive teams? Because, simply put, that’s not where the issues start.


Push ups, climbing a rope, running laps. I was somewhat athletic but was also aware that I was different and just could not do the things that other kids could do, even at a young age.


In an extensive review of research literature, the overwhelming story is one of physical education instructors and teachers, both male and female, “across all grade levels interact[ing] both verbally and nonverbally more often with male students when compared with female students”. In an entire litany of instructional approaches and engagements, from participation to constructive feedback to curriculum design, schools create male dominated and biased constructs around physical activity and education. Boys are at the center of the narrative, in both positive and negative ways, and girls are allowed, even influenced to sit on the sidelines.* (See Source Below)

How many times have I walked into a gym class, at almost every age level, and seen a group of girls sitting on the bleachers or the floor, not engaged. The instructors will tell me that the girls just, “don’t want to participate”. My response is always. “And if they were in a science class learning the periodic table, would that excuse fly”?


In an entire litany of instructional approaches and engagements, from participation to constructive feedback to curriculum design, schools create male dominated and biased constructs around physical activity and education.


The implicit and explicit assumption of this perceived reality is that boys all desire and need to be physical. Boys are hardwired for it. And girls, the opposite. If females had their choice, they would not want to participate. The biological argument is both patently false but also quite dangerous. It ignores the basic responsibility that we have to push and encourage students to thrive in places where they might normally feel uncomfortable or lack confidence. And typically, the logic hurts boys as well, who are regularly given a free pass or challenged less regarding areas of achievement stereotypically and falsely associated with “feminine” learning, such as reading, literature, and writing.

In the case of physical education we are also talking about young people's growing awareness of their well being and how to take care of themselves through healthy and nurturing forms of physical activity. As educators, we want them to strive for excellence in many different avenues of their education. Why should gender bias and socialized expectations curtail any of those opportunities?


* Staurowsky, E.J. et al. Gender Equity in Physical Education andd Athletics. In: Klein, S.S. (2007). Handbook for Achieving Equity Through Education. New York, NY.: Routledge, 396.



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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy