How Many Gym Classes Does a High School Athlete Need?

Just as a blind squirrel can occasionally find an acorn and a broken clock is right twice a day, the Wisconsin legislature every so often passes a bill affecting our schools that includes a sensible idea. 

Among its grab bag of changes, Wisconsin Act 105, enacted last December, creates the following new statutory provision:

118.33 (1) (e) A school board may allow a pupil who participates in sports or in another organized physical activity, as determined by the school board, to complete an additional 0.5 credit in English, social studies, mathematics, science, or health education in lieu of 0.5 credit in physical education.

Currently, all high school students in Wisconsin must take three phys ed classes, spread out over three years.  The new law would authorize School Boards to reduce the required number of classes by one, in order that the student could take instead a class in English, social studies, math, science or health education.

I think the Madison School Board should take advantage of this increased flexibility.  We ought to change our policy so that high school students participating in sports can skip a gym class and take an additional class in an academic subject instead.

I don’t base my view on the premise that gym classes have no value – I think instead that the permitted alternatives generally have a lot more value for our students, and particularly for students who are already benefiting from the physical activity of a sport.  Of course, eliminating a requirement of a third gym class for high school athletes would not prevent those students from taking a third or even a fourth class if they chose to and could work it into their schedules.

We are constantly constrained by our resource limits from offering as many classes to our high school students as we would like and they deserve.  If we change our phys ed requirement in the way that’s authorized by the new law, we may be able to reduce the number of gym classes we offer and replace them with additional classes that promise more academic benefits for our students.

This seems to me like an easy call.  What am I missing?    

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21 Responses to How Many Gym Classes Does a High School Athlete Need?

  1. Laura says:

    What about students who participate in other activities just as demanding of their time and energy? What about the student who loves drama and spends several hours outside of school practicing for the upcoming play? What about the artist, the dancer, the student who competes in several competitions because he or she is good at ice skating, debate, math, science, or engineering, etc.? Why is this option limited only to PE classes and only to athletes? Other organized activities, and the gifts and talents of our students take equal commitment, resources and dedication. Please consider a wider lens when determining student options for credit.

    • Laura — The extent of our flexibility is defined by the legislature. The recent statute allows us to consider waiving one of the three phys ed class requirements for athletes. If school boards were offered other options for modifying class requirements in ways that promoted academic rigor and student choice, I’d be happy to consider them.

  2. Laura Chern (not the first Laura who posted here) says:

    I think one down side is that you will be laying off Phys. Ed teachers. Another down side is that kids who participate in sports only, and don’t take Phys. Ed at all, may not get to try other sports in a non-competitive class. This also might mean that they don’t get to play these games with kids who really aren’t good at sports – sort of a lack of athletic ability diversity in their lives. It is good to have flexibility but it is also good to rub shoulders with kids who have a different perspective on life.

    • Laura2 — I hope that the change I suggest would not result in any layoffs; it certainly wouldn’t result in a decrease of the total classes offered. I understand your point that there can be benefits from a wide diversity of students in Phys Ed classes, but I think that that is outweighed by the benefits of allowing students who are physically active under school auspices outside of Phys Ed classes the opportunity to take an additional academic class rather than a third Phys Ed class.

      • Laura2 says:

        I think some of the posts below make my point better than I did. Physical Education is a class with a curriculum. Can that be covered in 2 classes or are 3 needed? High school sports are just competition and conditioning.

  3. Jon says:

    As a Physical Educator (not a gym class teacher), I strongly oppose this legislation. Most students who participate in an organized team or individual sport are usually in exceptional shape and receive a great deal of physical activity during the sport season and perhaps the off-season, but they are missing the lifetime fitness knowledge that is a premium in this age of convenience foods and obesity trends. As a coach and a physical education teacher, I have seen and run both practices and classes. An athlete in a particular sport receives a great deal of instruction in sport specific concepts and fundamentals. We “gym class” teachers call these, “Skill Related Fitness Concepts”. These are concepts such as: balance, speed, power, reaction time, coordination, etc. Being able to perform these skills may allow an athlete to be more successful in his/her sport, but it does not improve his/her fitness level. Health related fitness concepts, such as: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength/endurance, body composition, and flexibility, are concepts taught in physical education classes. A quality physical education teacher may teach the students to play a game of basketball, allowing them to practice skills related to the game, but the primary focus of the unit is to have the students understand how participating in a game will increase their overall fitness level. Quality physical education teachers today focus on lifetime fitness and wellness and not just sports and skills. Most students who participate in team or individual sports in high school will no longer be involved in any organized sport by the time they are 24. What happens then? If we are allowing students to supplement required physical education credits with sports, we are denying them the opportunity to learn, alongside other students with varying abilities and personalities, lifetime skills to stay fit outside of participating in practices or required off-season workouts. What happens when students don’t understand the effects of activity on their body systems? What happens when students don’t know what caloric intake and expenditure is? When a 24 year old former high school soccer player is no longer able to participate in the daily practices and the weekly games? How are they going to know what types of fitness activities they can perform to meet their goals? How will they even know how to set goals, assess fitness levels,or develop and implement an effective exercise program? There more issues with this legislation than I have time to discuss in this forum. Most of the same issues presented to state government by numerous education professionals and ignored. The sensible idea you speak of was nothing less than an easy fix to limit further, or even cut, existing funding for education by allowing school districts more flexibility in scheduling. In an era where childhood obesity is at epidemic levels why isn’t Wisconsin looking to improve physical education instead of looking for ways to decrease it? Rhetorical I gue$$.

    • Leta says:

      Agreed that a student needs to be educated not just in sports, but also in understanding physical fitness and life skills in eating right. But presumably this is also part of the discussion for introductory science curricula, and perhaps in other classes as well. And perhaps physical education courses have changed significantly since I was in school, but I DO remember goals, assessment of fitness levels, and development of exercise programs to be part of my team sports education, but NOT part of my regular gym classes.

  4. Mad4Madison says:

    Ed –

    Completely agree with the idea behind the legislation. I understand the comments above too, but I see this as a simple, common sense approach.

    If I have a child who is playing a sport at the high school level, then absolutely this should count as a .5 credit. And any increase to core learning credit is a positive.

    I will also state that by high school, the students have already participated in P.E. in elementary and middle school. Madison has a great PE program in those levels – heck, my children did snow shoeing in elementary school! That was impressive! But I am not sure that in high school, they are going to experience a new sport or new activity that will outweigh the ability to take an additional .5 credit in a core class.

    And while I respect the views of PE education as stated above by Jon, I simply disagree with the conclusion. An athlete in an organized high school sport is already focused on nutrition, fitness and exercise. I do not believe that the loss of .5 PE credit will make that same athlete more prone to obesity or other health related issues later in life. And I will also say that my adult bball rec league sure seems to be filled with former HS and even college players. Of course I did not make my HS team and I am still getting schooled as an adult! 🙂

  5. Jon says:

    A high school athlete is already focused on nutrition, fitness, exercise? Do you honestly believe that the average high school coach is discussing fitness concepts and nutrition with their athletes during practices? There is no “new sport” or “new activity” taught in high school. It is the emphasis on lifetime fitness, not sports. High School physical education has the ultimate goal of developing an ever-changing personal fitness plan integrating numerous activities and exercises tailored to fit an individual. I know that it may be difficult to understand, not having taught or coached, but there is a definite difference in content and instruction between competitive high school sports and physical education. Physical education is no longer about just playing games and sports, it is one of the only content areas that develops the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning. We are teaching students to be tolerant of others with differing intelligence, values, cultures, abilities, etc. but we are preventing them from opportunities to socialize through movement and allowing the highly skilled, highly competitive students to receive credit. As it was mentioned above, if I join a book club outside of school, can I receive credit for english? If I join the math team, do I have to take a math class? Slippery slope

  6. Mad4Madison says:


    I understand your views, I simply do not agree with the conclusion. The following is not meant to be snarky at all – but I have taught and I have coached. Now neither are my full-time vocation any more, I will grant you that for sure.

    I do not see this as an issue. The students that will get the credit are indeed the ones that are participating in athletics – and in many cases, year round. I was in a covered sports facitlity this weekend. I witnessed basketball, football, volleyball, softball and baseball. So for many of these student athletes, the training and preparation is year round. And yes, I expect that the coaches are indeed speaking of fitness and nutrition. And I suspect that many of these students are attending camps and other athletic activities that are also talking about health. HS athletics have matured quite a bit and I am certain you know more about that than I do. Offensive lineman for football are not just lifting weights, they are also focusing on conditioning. So I do believe that the very core values that you wish to instill in our youth are indeed being instilled in our youth that are participating in these programs.

    The students that do not participate in HS athletics will still have the same requirements. There is absolutely zero impact to them.

    I can certainly tell from your posts that you have passion on the subject – passion that I am sure is what makes you a fantastic educator. I do not interpret this potential change as a negative on the importance, nor the quality of a full and well rounded education that we all want for our children and community. I am also fairly certain that we can disagree on our mutual conclusions, which is fine – disagreement can lead to a better understanding.

    I would also be remiss if I did not thank you for your service to our children!

  7. Kristen says:


    I’m all for more flexibility, and that policy certainly makes sense….but I’m wary of setting up different requirements for different groups of kids. Mine aren’t in high school yet, but I imagine there is a cost (money, time) involved in playing a varsity sport. Some kids may need to head home to take care of siblings…or go to an after-school job, and might not be able to add on a varsity sport. I guess I’d worry that you’d end up with all your best athletes opting-out of physical education. And in my experience with MMSD so far, the PE classes are a lot more than exercise. The kids learn teamwork and how to interact with each other. They are also exposed to a wide variety of sports they may not otherwise play. High School may be completely different…but I wouldn’t want my middle-school daughter be able to opt-out of her current gym class, just because I can afford the time and money to enroll her in club soccer right now.

    • Kristen — In my experience, participation in high school sports is pretty much open to anyone, depending of course on the sport. And while PE classes may help kids learn teamwork and how to interact with each other, so does participation in high school sports. I hope you have the opportunity, as I have, of watching cross-country runners who have finished a race yelling their lungs out encouraging their teammates in the race who are pulling up the rear. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my point is not that phys ed classes have no value, it’s that I think an additional academic subject likely provides more benefits for a high school athlete than a third phys ed class. I think this point is inarguable. If high school athletes and their parents disagree, of course, they’d be free to sign up for that third phys ed class.

  8. Phil Friedl says:

    Ed says, “This is an easy call. What am I missing?”. This is what our legislators are working on? Ed, you are missing the huge opportunity to promote the fantastic physical education programs in the Madison Metropolitan School District and push our legislators to implement the requirement of physical education 5 days per week (currently 2 days per week or less) for kindergarten through 12th grade. Madison Metropolitan School District is a data driven district. Please examine the data around the connection of daily physical activity and academic success and test performance; the ongoing national obesity epidemic for our youth; the decline in physical activity for girls 13 and older (especially our African American girls). There are many more studies supporting the need for daily physical activity for our students. Ed, you should be discussing the ways to increase the amount of physical education and the wealth of knowledge students gain in health, nutrition and lifelong pursuits (thanks Jon) as we nurture our students toward college and beyond. Allowing athletes to opt out of physical education is robbing them of the opportunities to learn more about interacting with students who have different abilities and possibly discovering additional talents and likes that they would not be exposed to otherwise. Increase physical education and you get greater academic success and healthier students.

    Ed, did I mention that at the middle school I teach in a student can now buy Powerade and other Coca-cola products along with Cheetos, Doritos, Lays and other chips for breakfast. Can you believe it? This is an easy call. What am I missing?

    • Phil — You raise a lot of issues. Should our elementary and middle school students have phys ed every day? In principle, sure. The challenge is fitting everything they should have into the school day and this compels tough choices. Better nutrition? Sure again, although the issues raised around the food served and available in our schools are broader than I can address here. The change I am endorsing would only directly affect high school students who are participating in sports and so who are physically active. I don’t think a third phys ed class is required to make sure that they’re getting enough exercise. I grant that there can be other advantages to the classes but those advantages are outweighed in my mind by the advantages of an additional academic subject.

  9. LHS mom says:

    Question: do club sports count, or does this just mean a school team sport? If my soon-to-be high school athlete isn’t holding up his end in regards to behavior and/or grades, knowing that I will not only have a coach, but a school administration and team/classmates imposing consequences and enforcing an extended school culture on lessons of character, pride, honesty, leadership, etc., is VERY beneficial. I’ve never felt as if the club sports were fully capable of, or even really have the incentive to care in this regard. I can only envision the .5 credit option involving the child’s school sport team.

    • If this change were to be implemented, we’d have to establish standards for what students would qualify. My initial inclination is to agree with you and to favor limiting the option to those participating in WIAA-sanctioned sports, but that’s a point that would probably benefit from further discussion.

  10. Mary Battaglia says:

    I have sent in several emails to the school board about this issue, before you hit the board Ed, but this is a no brainer. I have two boys, both do, Football, Basketball, (then one converted to swimming) and track at the HS level. My oldest stayed at school from 3:30 till 7 for most of these sports all year long, and then had to take two years worth of PE at high school. I have a daughter on the school dance team, she dances 3 -4 days of the week in the summer for about 3 hours, then all year Sept to April. She spends 6 – 8 hours a week representing the school in a sport. I have no objection for the students to take a generic PE class their Freshman year, but after that I want credit for them so they can take art, or other humanity classes. All of my nieces and nephews who attend school in another state (and myself) had a class called athletics that was either the first or last class of the day. For basketball we showed up at 6:30 and practiced through first hour and that counted as my PE, my brother left his last hour of school and practiced football till 6 and that was his PE. As it is set up now my kids get home so late and get no credit for the hours they participate in a school sport, which is a PE. When my kids have to take racket sports, rocks and ropes, and lifeguard swimming class their sophomore and junior year they are only taking one area of PE not a generic class as they did in Elementary school so the concern of them getting credit for one area of athletics is kinda silly. At Memorial there are 2000 kids, only 30 kids are on the Varsity Basketball, 60 on JV and Freshman, 60 swimmers, 30 football, 20 poms, less than 20 wrestling, track have probably 100 and cross country maybe 50, tennis lets say 30, 50 baseball, 15 hockey, I’m guessing at some but as you can see maybe 400 kids are involved in athletics, (some like my boys are repeat athletes) you still have to get 1600 kids that need PE…
    I know they will not be able to do the 1st and last hour concept as our school is too large, but if they complete the sport and have a signature from the coach/teacher saying they completed this activity they should be able to receive a half credit for representing the school in this area of PE.

  11. Dan L. says:

    This article as well as its comments of varying perspectives are all very fun to read. As a former high-school, now college athlete, I’m with Ed on this issue. While I agree that there are definitely many benefits for high school age kids in having regular physical education course, I for one did not experience any real difference between our high school’s P.E. classes vs. training on the school’s track and cross country teams. I also remember feeling very frustrated with not always being able to take certain courses that had very limited time frames of availability due to P.E. class requirements for a course that was offered at the same time. For example, my senior year of high school, I was really hoping to take a course that revolved around educating students about the various fields of engineering. Unfortunately I still had yet to satisfy my 3rd P.E. class requirement and the only P.E. course that fit in to my class schedule also prevented me from taking the engineering course (which was only offered for one period of the day, for only one semester). As an engineering major in college, I still wish I would have been able to experience that intro to engineering course vs. the physical education class I ended up taking, which for the most part, resulted in me running mile repeats on the track during class (which I was already doing after school for track workouts).

    To Jon,
    Like I mentioned above, I definitely can see your viewpoint of physical education courses being needed for all age levels (I witnessed first hand the effects of obesity on some of my peers). However, I think it may be a stretch to say that all physical education courses are focused on promoting life long fitness and educating students about topics like nutrition and proper diet. Our gym classes consisted mainly of showing up, learning a basic drill for the sport unit we were covering at the time, practice it, then play the game for a while and call it a day. Would I have liked to learn more about topics like nutrition, proper diets and healthy lifestyle choices? You bet! But these types of topics weren’t covered in our regular P.E. classes. In fact they were really only covered in a one semester (.5 credit) health class. The rest of my P.E. experience was spent pretty much the same way as I mentioned above. Considering the amount of time I spent (roughly 4 hours a day, 6 days a week on average), I feel that I met the main goals of our high school’s physical education program, and would have jumped at the opportunity to instead take another academic course as a replacement. Now I will digress that the situation I gave is just one of many varying physical education programs throughout our state, and from what I’ve read from you Jon, I as a student would have loved to be in learn more in the area of physical education in your classes.

  12. parent Mike says:

    The idea that high school PE helps kids develop a life long interest in health and fitness is good in theory but in reality it just provides some activity for the inactive kids and is pretty much a waste of time for active kids. While I’m sure some PE teachers and some classes of kids have a terrific experience somewhere I have never met anyone who thought their high school gym class was useful. The jocks enjoy it for the easy credit and because they like activity. Some kids enjoy it because they hate sitting at a desk all day and need to get up and move, But the kids who are active for 5-10 hours a week with sports and want to challenge themselves with more classes as they prepare for college or a career do not need gym.
    It’s true that not all athletes learn about fitness from sports but many do learn in order to be better athletes. Requiring kids to take high school gym makes adults feel good but the reality in most gym classes is that kids get very little out of it especially if there is also a separate health class the kids must take.
    As for life long fitness it has been my experience that high school athletes go on to play sports after high school and when they can’t they tone it down and play golf or horse shoes or take senior water exercise classes. The kids who have never been interested in exercise grow up and when I end up treating them they still have no interest in exercise. Or they have had an eye opening experience and decide it’s time to learn about how to be healthy. It’s not something you can force a person to do.
    If a child gets an A on an algebra final exam on the first day of school then we do not make that student sit through an entire year of algebra. If a student can run, jump, do pushups and generally demonstrate a good level of fitness then why do we force them to sit through a year of gym. In most cases high school gym is another example of lowering the bar so our kids can roll over it versus jumping to touch it. My son and some of his friends are often given limits as to how hard/well they can play in gym so as not to out perform the inactive kids in their gym class. My son is just a typical skinny active kid and not a typical jock.
    PE teachers do have a valuable job to work with the inactive kids which I believe would be more successful if the inactive kids did not have the athletic kids outperforming them in every class. And NO, it’s not how well the teacher runs the class. The kids know who’s who. How would adults like it if you were forced once a day to play with everyone you work with. The boss, the janitor, the athletic, the obese. You could not just exercise but had to play a game like broomball with all these people. And then you had to take a gang shower with them and get back to work in 5 minutes. You’d quit your job but our kids are stuck.
    Keep gym as an option for all four years of high school but there should be several alternative pathways to get out of it for those who demonstrate they do not need it due to sports, lifestyle, or other physical activity.

  13. David Cohen says:

    Given that the Legislature made the rules on this one, I can see allowing it in the MMSD. However, I’d like to see the Board publicly acknowledge that other activities (theatre, for example) take just as much, and often MORE, commitment on behalf of our students. Otherwise, it just looks like preferential treatment for jocks. My own kids have enjoyed Phy Ed classes along with their rather successful competitive athletic endeavors.

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