The Link Between Academics and Physical Education
Studies have shown that there is a link between academic achievement and student physical fitness levels (Martin & Chalmers, 2007). Students that have a higher overall fitness level tend to have higher levels of academic success. The problem that many schools are faced with is that new mandates calling for improved academic results such as NCLB are leading to decreased time for physical education (Coe, D. , Pivarnik, J. , Womack, C. , Reeves, M. , & Malina, R, 2006). Meanwhile, the country is faced with all time record high child obesity rates (Martin & Chalmers, 2007). Traditionally, physical education and academics were seen as two separate and competing entities; one for the mind and one for the body (Vail,2006). Quality physical education; however, creates an environment where cross-curricular standards can be combined while still providing students with an opportunity to improve their fitness and physical health while promoting life-long physical activity.
Quality physical education programs have been identified as one strategy to promote fitness and activity, while still maintaining the structural integrity of an academic program with mandated high achievement expectations. A consensus exists that healthier students tend to yield higher academic achievement than less healthy students and that physical activity has cognitive benefits such as reduced stress levels and an increase in endorphins released by the brain. Thus, the cognitive benefits can theoretically lead to learning advantages and increased academic achievement. A quality physical education program also incorporates the traditional subjects such as Math and English that are subject to standardized testing. For example, in a quality Physical Education program, popular games and activities are modified to include vocabulary and themes from other subject matter (Vail, 2007).
One of the biggest challenges facing the American public school system is the education of students from diverse cultures (Verdugo, & Flores, 2007). English language learners (ELLs) represent a growing and ever-present sub group of students who come from diverse cultures and require their own set of educational approaches and modifications. In school, ELL students are held to the same standards as their fellow non-ELL students, which brings upon the issue of closing the gap that is often present when looking at the academic achievement of ELLs; therefore, considering that ELL students make up both a large and challenging sub group of students, one can consider the study of ELL students as impactful to the public school system.
The purpose of this research was to examine the relationship between physical education and academic achievement, particularly in how it relates to ELL students. Academic achievement is being used in a broad scope to cover two areas which include: one, behavior/participation; and two, success in form of assessment scores. Within this research, the following topics were taken into consideration: Examining academic achievement of English Language Learners, the current California requirements for physical education instructional time, and English learners in the physical education classroom. Since the population of ELL students seems to be ever increasing, ELL students now represent an important subgroup of students who have specific needs that need to be addressed. With a subgroup representing a high percentage of the overall population such as the one used in this study, it is important to address strategies that can lead to academic success.
The objective of this study was to determine if a direct link exists between the amount of hours spent participating in a quality Physical Education (P.E.) program and academic success in the form of two benchmark assessments: one for Math and one for English Language Arts (ELA). While there have been numerous studies examining the relationship between physical activity levels and academics, there has been very little research in regards to physical activity with a focus on ELL academic success. Since many studies have shown that healthy students are better learners (Tyson, & Chalmers, 2007) it is important to use this research to determine if the argument can be made that a healthier more physically active ELL student should be able to perform better academically. I also wanted to see if there was a relationship between the frequency of students engaging in physical activity and student behavior as it relates to a classroom setting.
Seeing as how the ELL population in many American schools accounts for a large amount of the total student population, it is therefore important to focus on their learning needs (Verdugo, Flores, 2007). ELL students represent a diverse subgroup of students with a particular set of learning needs and challenges. One such challenge that educators are faced with is that under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), ELL students are held to the same standards and instructional requirements as non-ELLs. Many states have established instructional requirements for the number of minutes that students should receive in a given subject and it is therefore important to capitalize on that time to ensure that ELL students are being enriched across all subject areas, including Physical Education. The results of this study did not provide adequate proof that increased time of instruction in physical education leads to academic success, but it did show that student participation in other subject areas was greater on days when students received physical education. It is then possible to argue that physical education can be used to support other areas of the curriculum and that physically active students are more inclined to participate and perform in their other classes. This statement echoes the findings of similar research studies that are reviewed in the next section of this research.
Review of Relevant Studies
At this time, the number of studies that are based on the direct relationship between Physical Education and the academic success of ELL students, is very limited. In order to seek a better understanding of the research question driving this review, it becomes necessary to look at a combination of research studies covering separate topics that address the relationship between Physical Education and academic success in general as well as studies that focus on ELL populations’ key issues and achievement. Coupled with these studies, is the newly published study on empowering ELLs in Physical Education (Burden, Columa, Hodge, & Mansilla, 2013). The combination of these separate topics provides a glimpse into the effects that daily participation in Physical Education has on the academic success of 6th grade ELL students.
In her journal article, ‘Is Physical Fitness Raising Grades?’, Kathleen Vail examines how Physical Education teachers are combining academics and physical fitness activities to increase learning opportunities in traditional subjects such as Math and Language Arts. Vail also examines the relationship between exercise and the added mental health benefits that are often a result such a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression. Vail also notes that students who participate regularly in a physical education program are better able to concentrate when they are in a classroom. Vail’s article discussed a study that found a strong association between math and aerobic fitness (Vail, 2006). In the study, children ranging from ages 8-10, were found to have a direct relationship between their body mass index (BMI) and the Illinois Standards Achievement Test. The research found that students that had a higher BMI, tended to score lower on their test. The article suggests that more research needs to be done on the connection between physical fitness and academics; however, there appears to be a direct correlation between physical fitness and increased health benefits. Benefits, of which can then be transferred into tools that lead to an increased academic experience and possible increased academic achievement. In the case of an ELL subgroup, the benefits associated with physical fitness/education can help in meeting the needs of these students.
Martin and Chalmers’s, ‘The Relationship Between Academic Achievement and Physical Fitness’,(Martin & Chalmers, 2007) provides a contrasting view to the findings in Vail’s article. In their article, it is shown that there is relatively little to no relationship between fitness and academic achievement. To measure the relationship between the two content areas, Martin and Chalmers used the results from a basic skills test, and the Presidential Physical Fitness Challenge, involving students ranging from elementary to middle school age. The authors make a point that while many studies provide mixed results, the studies that show a positive relationship between fitness and academics, only report mean scores with no standard deviations given for comparison. It is important to note that this study is different from many others in the fact that it compares the results of two assessments to draw a conclusion on the relationship between physical fitness and academic achievement. Rather than focusing on the affect that physical fitness has on academics, the two items were treated as completely separate entities. Therefore, a student who scored highly on the Presidential Physical Fitness Test may or may not score highly on the skills test and vice versa. An argument can be made that comparing two separate subjects such as Math and English Language Arts would have no bearing on one another and thus produce similar findings.
In ‘Physical Education and its Effect on Elementary Testing Results’, Tremarche, Robinson, and Graham, provide an interestingly unique set of results. Like many of the studies that seek to compare physical fitness and academics, the authors conducted a study to examine if a relationship exists between physical education/fitness and higher achievement. The study focused on fourth grade students living in several Massachusetts communities. Students were tested in both Math and English Language Arts (ELA) and the study was conducted over two different schools. Both schools provided students with access to a quality physical education program; however, ‘school one’ provided students with 28 hours of instruction a week while ‘school two’ provided students with 56 hours per week. The results of their study found no significant difference between the Math scores of ‘school one’ and ‘school two’; however, the ELA scores of the two schools were significantly different with ‘school two’ scoring higher on average. ‘School two’, being the subject that provided students with an increased amount of quality physical education. The results of this study would allow for the discussion on the effectiveness of a quality physical education program as it relates to ELL students in regards to academic achievement in the content area of ELA.
As stated before, the limitations that exist are found in the fact that there are a limited number of studies that examine the role of a physical education class in the success of an ELL student. Studies tend to focus on school wide populations or in some cases particular grade levels rather than subgroups. In order for a hypothesis to be made based strictly on the available literature, one would have to draw parallels between success found within a general population and an ELL subgroup. Further research and examination is needed to see if participation in a physical education class leads to any significant variation in academic success among ELL students.