Our Thoughts on Chicago’s New PE Policy

November 10, 2021

Physical Education (PE) is an essential part of the Chicago Public Schools’ commitment to student health. At its Oct. 27 meeting, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education approved changes to the PE policy. While many of these changes are positive, there are some areas that could be stronger or do not follow best practices.

Our experience working with CPS and national stakeholders on a variety of wellness-related policies has taught us that the written language of policies matters, and that even the invaluable support of district and school-level staff, partners and others is not a substitute for clear, transparent, accountable policy language.

Implementing CPS’ PE policy with fidelity has always been challenging. According to the district’s 2017-2018 self-reported data, only 31 percent of elementary and middle schools offered the required 150 minutes per week of PE and just 57 percent of high schools offer daily PE to all grade levels.

In 2020, HSC co-convened a task force with CPS to review and assess the district’s PE policy with input from a broad set of school stakeholders. This led to a set of recommendations for strengthening physical education through policy and practice. The new CPS PE policy makes a number of positive changes, but it falls short in some areas of what HSC and other stakeholders recommend.

Here’s what we think is great in the new policy: We appreciate the way that it clarifies that PE cannot be treated as interchangeable with health, sexual health or driver’s education, and also that the policy is very clear that PE teachers will get the professional development and equipment they need.

The new PE policy also now puts PE under the purview of the Office of Teaching and Learning (OTL), which oversees all other core subjects. This means that physical education will be part of the conversation when the district is making decisions around investing in curriculum, and allocating resources for student learning and professional development. The inclusion of an equity statement and a process for evaluating the equity impact of the new policy is a strong element that will help ensure greater quality of implementation across the district.

Nevertheless, we still hope that CPS will consider strengthening its policy in two ways.

First, our experience with the CPS Wellness Policy has shown that a clearly defined review process that compares the policy against current best practices, collects and transparently shares implementation data, and raises up the voices of parents and school staff can be invaluable. HSC has helped CPS with this triennial review process twice, and because it is clearly laid out in the Wellness Policy, the process does not have to be reinvented each time. The results are available to the public as a matter of policy.

The new PE policy relies on the board to request this type of review, and it does not lay out any requirements for its timing or the public reporting of results. While it may be true that the required reporting process in the previous policy was not followed with fidelity, that is not an argument against clear policy language that demands transparency and accountability; rather, it is an argument for better implementation of the policy.

In addition, the misuse and overuse of individual student waivers were identified during the stakeholder engagement process as a major barrier to effective PE implementation, but the adopted policy does not require that the data collected through a new waiver dashboard will be available to the public or reported regularly.

Second, we have seen first-hand the power of setting out ambitious targets rather than settling for easier-to-meet minimums. In the years after the USDA set out new sodium guidelines for school meals, for example, districts worked hard to meet the targets, and many of them had met the second level of sodium reduction even before those targets were rolled back during the Trump administration.

The new PE policy actively reduces the number of minutes required for middle school students, moving away from the CDC’s guidelines. At a time when the health and well-being of CPS students is as critical as it has ever been, and CPS is making other significant investments to support student mental and physical health and wellness, CPS should be reinforcing these efforts by layering its investments rather than by weakening the PE policy.

Physical education plays a profound role in supporting the healthy growth and development of Chicago’s students. Now, more than ever, as students return to in-person school and families attempt to rebuild healthy routines in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the district needs a robust and transparent PE policy.

HSC stands committed to supporting the district and schools in implementing high-quality physical education, and we look forward to continued engagement with the CPS Board and the CPS Health and Physical Education Department to improve the health and well-being of Chicago’s public school students.