children stretching arms upward in Physical Education class

Raising the Stature of Physical Education Through Curriculum

For several decades, P-12 physical education has suffered from a lack of expectations for significant learning outcomes and has been referred to as an extracurricular or academically soft subject within the school system. Most states do not meet the national requirements for weekly time allocated to physical education, and some do not set minimum amounts of time for participation.

An important overarching mission for physical educators is to find effective, substantive ways to be a supported school subject and gain stature within the broader school culture. Most important, HPE teachers must effectively help students acquire the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for lifelong engagement in a physically active lifestyle.

Understanding the U.S. educational context and policy structure is the first step toward diagnosing problems stemming from current school physical education and effecting positive programmatic change.

Research Results

Extensive curricular reform is needed for school physical education to be supported as a relevant and important subject area in the school curriculum, but it is unclear how to successfully initiate change.  

Our recently published research article (in the September issue of Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport), investigated the plausibility of establishing a unified, common curriculum as a means to improve the effectiveness and status of P-12 programs.  

The study analyzed the perspectives of 28 physical education teacher education researchers and leaders through in-depth interviews, revealing the following:

Potential benefits of employing a unified curriculum in physical education

  • Clear guidance for P-12 programs and pedagogical practice
  • Alignment of instruction with program objectives, assessments and accountability systems
  • Establishment of substantive program outcomes and reliable assessments
  • Greater security and credibility for school physical education
  • Strengthened accountability for schools and school personnel
  • Greater ease in measuring educational outcomes and student progress

Possible drawbacks of curricular standardization

  • Promotion of a top-down approach
  • Creation of rigid, stifling educational environments
  • Limited local flexibility and teacher autonomy
  • Disregard for individual needs and interests and school contexts
  • Heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing and summative test-based accountability
  • Simplified curricula that would limit opportunities to engage students in deeper understanding

Factors that make extensive curricular reform difficult and contentious

  • Long-standing tradition of local control and state responsibility
  • Anticipated resistance to change from states, local schools and teachers
  • Deeply held convictions about a localized/idiosyncratic curriculum
  • Policy variability between states (e.g., hours assigned to PE, teacher education requirements)
  • Disparities in funding and available resources across states
  • Difficulty to secure nationwide consensus about what is to be taught in schools

State Autonomy and Local Flexibility

Education policy in the U.S. is largely established within states, and specific requirements are typically determined by local governmental entities.

Therefore, if large-scale curricular reform for physical education were enacted, it seems desirable for the change to be initiated at the state or local level, particularly because teachers who are in close proximity to students are those best-suited for understanding their interests, needs, and skill levels.

Local adaptability and teacher creativity are also important for sustaining both educational consistency and flexibility.

Strategies for Substantive Change in P-12 Curriculum

The agenda of a national curriculum is, by nature, a debatable and often divisive topic. Multiple factors such as sociocultural diversity, geographical differences, and educational contexts must be considered.

Despite some potential benefits of nationalizing the curriculum in physical education, it would not be readily accepted due to sociocultural and contextual diversity and the strong history of local curriculum control.

For meaningful, systematic change in physical education through greater control at the national level, the following would need to apply:

  • The suggested curriculum would need to be broadly described, emphasizing fundamentals.
  • Frameworks would need to encompass reliable, diverse curricular models supported by professionals in the field.
  • The curriculum would need to be culturally responsive, locally flexible, and tailored for individual circumstances and needs.
  • Planning efforts would need to include the combined efforts of diverse advisory groups and educational experts from all geographic regions and across all socioeconomic sectors.
  • The curriculum would need to be carefully developed and grounded in the results of reliable pilot-testing.

All curricular reform in local schools should incorporate SHAPE America’s National Standards and Grade-Level Outcomes for K-12 Physical Education, as well as valid standards-based assessments.

Additional Resources


Junghwan Oh
Junghwan Oh

Junghwan Oh is a post-doctoral research associate in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on curriculum and education policy, specifically systemic school reform, effective curricular/instructional strategies, and the promotion of quality school-based physical education. He can be reached at oh35@illinois.edu.

Kim Graber
Kim Graber

Kim C. Graber is a professor and associate head in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she also serves as director of the Campus Honors Program. Her research interests include teacher education, teacher socialization, and children’s wellness. She can be reached at kgraber@illinois.edu.