Evidence for state requirements supporting physical education, and changes in those requirements in recent years, reveals a mixed picture slightly more than 75 percent of states require physical education in grades K-6, but over half the states that have such requirements specify no time or activity guidelines.
In other words, although physical education is required, schools can do virtually anything to meet the requirements; for example, recess and class play time can be labeled physical education.
Only six states require elementary-school students to take physical education 30 minutes per day, 5 days a week, but in 1993 this is up one state from 1987.
Illinois is the only state that requires daily physical education for K-12.
For grades 7-9, more than 80 percent of the states require physical education, and 60 percent of those that do require some kind of time/ unit specification. However, only four states require physical education 5 days a week, 50 minutes a day, for these grade levels.
At the high-school level, eight states now require physical education for all 4 years, up from five in 1987. In 1987, 44 percent of the states required only 1 year of physical education, but by 1993 that number had decreased to 24 percent.
We can view these data with both optimism and pessimism. The optimistic side is that they represent minimum state requirements. Local school districts are free to go beyond them and many do.
Although few states have requirements for elementary physical-education specialist teachers, many local school districts employ specialists to teach physical education. High schools sometimes offer physical-education electives that go beyond state requirements.
The pessimistic side is that most state requirements are written such that their intent a minimum amount of high-quality physical education can easily be ignored. Recess to often counts as physical education.
At the elementary level, classroom teachers often say that they teach physical education, but, in fact, they do not. At the high-school level many athletes are allowed to substitute their sport participation for the requirement.
We also should remember that, within any given state, it is much more likely that children and youth in wealthier school districts will receive sufficient high-quality physical education than it is that their counterparts in the poorer school districts will have access to such programs.
Thus, inequalities in opportunity for physical education exist not only between states but within states too.