Many schools have decreased physical education classes (PE) or cut them entirely, but there have been recent pushes to get kids back outside during the school day, such as the efforts of Texas Fitness Now (TFN), a large grant program available to high-poverty Texas middle schools. The goal of their PE programs is to get kids healthier, but also to improve academic performance and student behavior. Researchers Analisa Packham and Brittany Street ask of TFN: Did it?

Texas Fitness Now, the second-largest physical activity grant program in the U.S., distributed $37 million to high-poverty Texas middle schools from 2007–2011. Most of each grant was designated for buying PE equipment and hiring PE instructors; some was meant for nutrition education. Students in participating schools had to participate in PE classes for thirty minutes per school day and took a fitness test twice each year. Each school received about $10,000.

Most PE program studies focus on elementary schools, but TFN and this study covered only middle school students. Researchers studied the effects of TFN on students’ BMI and overall fitness levels using a statewide test called the FITNESSGRAM, which measures students in areas such as body composition, aerobic capacity, and strength. Due to privacy concerns, results from the test are only available by school, gender, and grade, and not at the student level. They also looked into likely indirect results of a PE program, including scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), disciplinary actions, and daily attendance. Researchers analyzed these factors in schools right on either side of the program’s eligibility cut-offs, which are similar enough to each other to serve as trial and control schools.

TFN’s impacts on physical fitness were nearly non-existent. When looking strictly at body composition, there was in fact a slight downturn in the percentage of students with a healthy BMI, although the number of obese students (those with extremely high BMIs) did decrease. Marginal fitness levels, measured in the FITNESSGRAM, saw no significant change. The authors suggest a number of possible explanations for these disappointing effects, including the chance that exercising at school makes kids less active at home.

The program had no effect on test scores and a negative effect on student behavior. Neither reading nor math scores saw any statistically significant change. There was also little effect on daily attendance. The authors admit the lack of impact is surprising, given significant declines in student behavior. TFN schools saw a 16 percent increase in disciplinary actions and a 7 percent increase in the number of students misbehaving. They also lost more instructional time due to suspensions than non-TFN schools.

The authors hypothesize that many of the program’s underwhelming results could be due to an uptick in bullying. Out-of-shape students may get discouraged and stop trying during PE if their peers make fun of their weight or coordination, which might explain the stagnant fitness levels. And the increase in disciplinary actions and suspensions could also be concentrated among bullies. However, they were unable to study any of these guesses.

The study and the program itself both have their limitations. Researchers could not obtain the student-level fitness outcomes that might shed light on who is and is not benefitting from TFN. A more granular study might include basic demographic information like race, ethnicity, and income, but also other characteristics such as prior fitness level and previous PE experience. Nor were the authors able to investigate the potential mechanisms of the changes they identified; in particular, more information about bullying trends would be enlightening.

Moreover, as a recent Atlantic article covering the study pointed out, TFN itself is not representative of the types of physical education and activity most scientists recommend for students, especially adolescents. The most effective PE programs are “multifaceted and holistic,” and often require nutrition education alongside exercise opportunities. Experts also point out that unstructured recreational time can be even more beneficial to physical fitness than programmed physical education classes. The results of this Texas grant program are indeed disappointing—but if scientific research continues to show that physical education is more complex than our traditional model, we may need more creative grant opportunities to help kids build healthy lifestyles.

SOURCE: Analisa Packham and Brittany Street, “The Effects of Physical Education of Student Fitness, Achievement, and Behavior,” Working paper (November 2018).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.