Physical education is certainly physical. But what if PE classes were even more than that? High school students participating in Tracy Krause’s outdoor academy at Tahoma High School in Maple Valley, WA, spend every other day in a cross-curricular program that integrates instruction in physical education with literature and science. Subsequently, students in the outdoor academy program score 15 percent higher than their peers in reading, writing, and science assessments. This is an example of a meaningful way to deliver physical education to high school students in support of their physical literacy and academic achievement.

Washington, D.C.-based SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) America is helping to equip physical educators with the resources they need to create high-quality programs—such as the one at Tahoma High School—that deliver effective instruction to all students. Physical education can—and should—contribute to the schoolwide curriculum, foster a positive school climate, and create a strong foundation for all students as they begin their journey toward physical literacy, a lifetime of healthful physical activity, and other healthy habits.

Physical education programs should always be considered when principals are considering ways to improve teaching and learning. SHAPE America supports principals in engaging in the five key practices of effective principals detailed by The Wallace Foundation.

#1: Shaping a Vision of Academic Success for All Students

Effective physical education programs are grounded in state or national content standards. SHAPE America has identified physical literacy as the goal of physical education and cites physical literacy as the foundation of its National Standards and Grade-Level Outcomes for K–12 Physical Education. Physical literacy is the lifelong process of developing the knowledge, skills, and confidence to enjoy a lifetime of healthful physical activity. Physical education in schools is critical to the process of physical literacy, as it is the way in which all students develop a strong foundation of knowledge, skills, and values that they can apply throughout their lives.

A standards-based physical education program that focuses on physical literacy should set high student expectations that progress students through psychomotor, cognitive, and affective skills development. Physical educators can develop these skills by engaging students in an environment that supports trying, failing, and trying again. The physical educator is committed to teaching every student to improve his or her skills and knowledge, regardless of their skill level, ethnicity, gender, etc. Further, the physical educator is committed to ensuring that students can adapt and apply these skills throughout their lives in order to develop and maintain a physically active lifestyle.

#2: Creating a Climate Hospitable to Education

A body of research supports the fact that there’s a positive relationship between physical activity and academic success. Students’ growth in physical literacy supports their development in other types of literacy. For example, as students’ fitness levels increase, test performance results also increase. Additionally, bouts of physical activity increase brain activity, supporting the need for daily physical education that’s reinforced by physical activity breaks in the classroom. 

It is important for all staff members to be educated on the impact that physical activity can have on cultivating student learning. The Wallace Foundation emphasizes the need to focus on building a sense of community to ensure that schools foster a learning-centered environment. An environment where the physical educator shares ideas for promoting physical activity throughout the school day aids in fostering a community that supports increasing physical activity and academic performance. 

Additionally, it is important for schools to educate parents and the community on the important role that being physically active can play in increasing academic success. By engaging all school stakeholders in the conversation about the correlation between physical activity and academic success, the school cultivates an environment that is committed to positively influencing the personal health and academic achievement of every student. 

#3: Cultivating Leadership in Others

Physical education programs should always be included in professional learning communities that are designed to improve instruction. In these environments where staff are encouraged to work collaboratively, physical educators can help create a culture of health in every classroom for every student. For example, the physical education teacher can share ideas for how to integrate movement into classroom lessons—this can help improve student focus and reduce off-task behaviors. Classroom teachers can do this by adding physical activity breaks or by integrating movement into learning tasks.   

Physical educators should also take part in learning through observing classroom teachers, as well as inviting classroom teachers into their environment. These cross-curricular observations can connect teachers through identifying best practices that focus not only on instructional tasks, but also on classroom management to maximize student learning.

It is also important to take into account the role that physical education programs can play in cultivating leadership within students. A well-​delivered physical education program empowers students to take control of their personal health and habits. For example, fitness testing is commonplace for our nation’s schools. However, the most effective physical education programs incorporate fitness testing into a broader plan to teach students about the value of physical fitness to their personal health, the meaning of the scores they achieve, and how to use those scores to develop a personal fitness plan to improve or maintain a health-enhancing level of physical fitness. The purpose of the fitness test should not be focused on the number of PACER laps students are able to complete. Rather, the focus should be on the interpretation of that information and using it as a tool to guide every student along his or her personal physical literacy journey. 

A well-delivered physical education program empowers students to take control of their personal health and habits.

#4: Improving Instruction

Effective physical education programs use standards-based instruction to promote high expectations for student learning. Quality instruction is created through comprehensive units with clear objectives that are delivered in a way that allows growth for students of all skills and abilities.

It is important that physical educators receive feedback on the quality of teaching and learning in their classroom. Oftentimes a busy, happy gymnasium is passed through as quality instruction due to the lack of “technical core” for observing the content area. It is important to focus in on student learning in every physical education observation and include content experts in this process.

Additionally, teachers should be encouraged to maximize students’ learning by identifying opportunities for cross-curricular instruction. Teachers should open up conversations about how their curriculum overlaps with other areas. For example, science and physical education teachers can work together to help students learn basic science principles, such as Newton’s Laws of Motion, by integrating real-life examples of human movement into the learning activities. Or in social science, teachers can offer opportunities for students to learn and practice games that are unique to different cultures. 

At Tahoma High School, PE teacher Tracy Krause capitalized on student learning with cross-curricular instruction by collaborating with his colleagues to develop an outdoor academy. Now, students in this school have opportunities to explore English, science, and physical education through outdoor adventure. For example, they take field trips to Mount Rainier that include fly-fishing lessons and environmental study through sampling, etc., and write about the experience. Students who participate in this unique cross-curricular approach are demonstrating an average 15 percent increase in test scores in reading, writing, and science compared to their peers who do not participate in this program. You can learn more about Krause’s program on the SHAPE America website at

#5: Managing People, Data, and Process to Foster School Improvement

Data collection, analysis, and dissemination are critical to the success of physical education programs. The process of collecting data to develop physical literacy should involve students examining their individual fitness levels as they apply to their personal health.

The bottom line: Physical educators should use standards-based guidance in the analysis of the data they collect and continually improve the curriculum and instruction of physical education programs.

Cheryl Richardson, MS, CSCS, is the senior director of programs at SHAPE America in Washington, D.C.