Increased Accountability Increases Time Children Spend in Physical Education

BERKELEY, CA, June 26, 2018 – A new study finds that requiring schools to track and report the minutes children spend in physical education (PE) increases the number of minutes children spend in PE. The study, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, assesses the impact of a 2013 lawsuit filed against 37 California school districts for being noncompliant with PE law.


School PE is an important, though too often underutilized, tool for increasing youth physical activity levels, improving student health, and creating healthier, more equitable communities. The state of California requires that elementary students (grades 1-6) receive a minimum of 200 minutes of PE every 10 days. While this law has been in existence for 4 decades, research has shown that the majority of schools are noncompliant. A significant percentage of students, particularly students of color and those from low-income families, do not receive the legally mandated PE minutes.

In 2013, a lawsuit was filed against 37 school districts that were found to be noncompliant with state physical education law. Until now, it was unknown whether this litigation resulted in increased compliance with the law and/or if it led to unintended consequences that could undermine PE.

The study and its findings

To assess the impact of this lawsuit on PE, UC Berkeley researchers, led by Hannah Thompson, PhD, MPH, a Research Scientist in the School of Public Health, conducted nearly 100 interviews with California district administrators, school principals, PE teachers and 5th-grade teachers in districts that were parties to the lawsuit and in districts that were not involved in the lawsuit.

Researchers found that in districts that were parties to the lawsuit, personnel reported PE minutes increased and attributed this to the lawsuit. As an administrator from a district involved in the lawsuit put it, “I think that the lawsuit … really brought to the forefront [that] this is something that we are accountable to in the same way we talk about accountability to English, Language Arts or Math.” Time lost on paperwork was the most often cited barrier to compliance with the lawsuit settlement requirements.

School PE has been identified as one of the strongest, yet overlooked, public health tools to increase physical activity for all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, race or neighborhood. Still, disparities in access to PE exist and must be addressed in order to ensure all students have the opportunity to not only be physically active now, but also to learn the skills and knowledge that will facilitate a lifetime of physical activity.

In California, litigation appears to have be an effective accountability mechanism to increase compliance with the law. Lessons learned from California’ s experience would suggest that compliance with PE could be increased, not by suing more school districts, but by developing systems for tracking and reporting PE minutes and developing stronger accountability mechanisms for compliance.

“If there was a requirement to have credentialed PE teachers and [the] funding to support that,” one assistant superintendent said,  “that’s how you’re going to make sure that compliance is achieved.”

This research was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its Evidence for Action program. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. This work was also executed with support from Robert García (The City Project); Monica Lounsbery (Cal State Long Beach); and Benjamin Winig (ChangeLab Solutions).


Hannah Thompson, PhD, MPH

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