Michigan Legislature weighs dropping high school health, gym requirements

physical education class

Rates of anxiety, depression, sexually transmitted diseases and obesity are rising among Michigan teens, raising questions about bills in Lansing that would drop health and physical education requirements for high school students. (Shutterstock image)

Michigan Health Watch is made possible by generous financial support from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Michigan Association of Health Plans, and the Michigan Health and Hospital Association. The monthly mental health special report is made possible by generous financial support of the Ethel & James Flinn Foundation. Please visit the Michigan Health Watch 'About' page for more information.

A state requirement that high school students take classes in health and physical fitness might soon vanish in many Michigan schools.   

A Republican-sponsored package that loosens high school graduation requirements — most prominently by making Algebra II optional — also includes opt-outs for health and gym.

State Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, the bills’ sponsor, said narrowing the list of courses required for graduation allows schools to better prepare students who aren’t college-bound by offering more flexibility in what is now “a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all” approach to education.

But health advocates argue that reducing health and physical fitness to an elective imperils a generation of students who suffers from higher rates of anxiety, suicide and depression. Michigan also has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity and has seen a spike in sexually transmitted diseases, which advocates say suggests that more students should take these courses, not fewer.

“You look at businesses, and they say they struggle to find young people who can deal with stress and sort through communications issues,” Amy Wassmann, past president of the Michigan School Health Coordinators’ Association, which promotes research-based approaches to health, told Bridge Magazine. 

“How can we eliminate those courses where they learn and practice the skills to be successful in their work ... and personal lives?”

The age of anxiety

Health and physical education teach students lifelong skills that are critical at home and in the workplace, said Amy Wassmann, past president of the Michigan School Health Coordinators’ Association.

The State of Michigan now requires high school students to complete one credit hour “in subject matter that includes both health and physical education” to graduate from high school, meaning students generally must take a half-credit, or a semester, of each. There are exceptions: Students, for instance, can fulfill their phys-ed credit by playing on a sports team.  

The health course is intended to arm students with how to find accurate information about their bodies so they can make safe choices. Topics range from mental health to opioids to navigating relationships including sexual relationships. As Bridge has reported, local districts are not required to teach sex education; and among those that do, some limit discussion to an abstinence-only approach, while others provide information on various forms of contraception.     

Public health studies suggest such topics are finding a ready audience in high school classrooms. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 1 in 3 teens has an anxiety disorder, with the disorder deemed clinically “severe” in 8 percent of cases. 

Teens report high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, and it’s health and physical education instructors that they often turn to, said Wassmann, of the MiSHCA.

A recent Bridge analysis of health data revealed that Michigan adolescents and teens are committing suicide at nearly twice the rate of just over a decade ago. 

From 2015 to 2017, Michigan students polled reported rising rates of sadness and hopelessness (31.7 percent in 2015 versus 37.3 in 2017); suicidal thoughts (17.3 percent versus 21.3 percent), and a slight rise in suicide attempts (9.2 percent versus 9.4 percent), according to the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses to monitor health-related behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death and disability.

That survey also noted an uptick in Michigan students who described themselves as slightly or very overweight, sexually active, and having sex without a condom. 

In addition to eliminating health and physical education as graduation requirements, the Republican bills would peel back the requirement for students to take math up to Algebra II. (Students would still be required to take four credit hours of math, including Algebra I and geometry, to graduate.)

The Bumstead bills also would make world history, U.S. history and economics optional rather than required, and would lift requirements to take one credit hour of visual, performing, or applied arts and at least two credits of foreign language. As with Algebra II, credits for these courses instead could be used to fulfill elective credit hours.

Current graduation requirements under the Michigan Merit Curriculum can “stifle student creativity and exploration and do not always allow students to be prepared for life after high school if those plans do not include college,” Bumstead said in a statement.

State Sen. Jon Bumstead, R-Newaygo, says students should be able to skip health and physical education, art and other classes to pursue courses that better fit their career paths.

At a Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee in November,  Bumstead told committee members he learned the skills he needed to build his business, Bumstead Construction, at the Newaygo County Career Tech Educational Center Building Trades Program.

But now “Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” he told the committee, adding that Lansing laws take away local control of education and “micromanage” districts. 

“Michigan does not trust our teachers, principals and superintendents to use their knowledge and expertise to teach our children,” he said. 

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, supports Bumstead’s proposal overall, but said it has concerns about the bills’ details, including stripping health and physical education from the requirements, said MEA spokesman Doug Pratt.

The Michigan Merit Curriculum, passed in 2006, raised the academic rigor of what courses students must complete to graduate. But it limited opportunities for courses that prepared students for careers and engaged their passions, the MEA argued in its statement to the committee.

“Creative electives that educators and students were excited about disappeared from course offerings because they didn’t fit into the rigid buckets MMC required,” according to the MEA.

“The Bumstead bills move us in the right direction, but we need to have more conversation about what we’re doing with health and foreign language and art,” Pratt told Bridge. 

The MEA offered fuller support for an earlier set of Republican bills in the state House that would allow students to take a course in statistics or financial literacy instead of Algebra II and allow students to take 30 hours of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) training instead of physical education. That three-bill package, sponsored by Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, Rep. Roger Hauck, R-Union Township, and Rep. Beth Griffin, R-Matawan, awaits a vote before the full House.

In a party-line vote, senators in December passed the Bumstead bills to the full Senate.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki, of Livonia, a Democrat and former teacher said she is wary of relaxing Michigan’s curriculum requirements. She acknowledged some educators have told her they are not opposed to eliminating the Algebra II requirement.

But she said that might lead to an overall drop in state standardized scores which, in turn, would send lawmakers back to tinker with the curriculum requirements once again.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

The Education Trust-Midwest, a Michigan education reform group, has argued that Algebra II and the other such courses are essential for students to succeed after high school. Republican efforts, year after year, to get rid of the Algebra II and other course requirements chip away at the state’s attempts to improve student achievement, efforts that have made Michigan “a national leader for ensuring that students are prepared for success in postsecondary education,” it said in testimony opposing Bumstead’s bills.  

“How can we hold students, educators and schools accountable for learning content, when we do not actually require it to be taught?” The Education Trust-Midwest asked.

The future of sex education 

Kelly Stec, advocacy director at the East Lansing-based Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health, which raises awareness about sexual health among youth, said she worried that the attention on Algebra II has allowed the possible loss of health and other requirements to go relatively unnoticed by lawmakers.

“It’s become a Christmas tree bill in because [proponents] want flexibility, but it’s almost like they’re sneaking in these other changes,” she said.

Taryn Gal, executive director at the adolescent sexual health group, said the rising number of students with STDs and engaging in unprotected sex makes this an inopportune time for the state to signal retreat on sexual health. 

“There are already so many barriers to having sex education in the schools,” she said.

Requiring a health curriculum for graduation forces schools to hire teachers “passionate and trained” to help students sort through difficult topics, Gal said.

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Tue, 02/04/2020 - 7:29am

Why do people opposed to public education always try to "fix" it?

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 10:22am

They simply want to fix it so that it produces graduates who lack critical thinking skills. There's nothing more annoying than people who can figure out how the are being lied to, cheated and held in abject slavery to a job that won't even pay a living wage.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 11:05am

Why can't physical education courses be based on exercise routines students can use the rest if their lives instead of sports which require groups? Yoga, pilates and weight conditioning don't require much spending but give students skills they can do anywhere.

Teresa Koenigsknecht
Thu, 02/06/2020 - 11:57am

Here at Grand Ledge High School, we have a Women's Personal Conditioning class that DOES include the above mentioned activities along with lessons on nutrition, stress management and fitness.
Our required PE course is called Personal Health and Wellness. There are two portions. The health portion and the PE portion. The PE portion is lifetime activities such as tennis, golf, badminton, volleyball, archery, swimming, weight training and Red Cross Adult CPR/AED first aid certification!!!

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 11:29am

Their "fixes" are designed to make public education look bad. Remember the Michigan GOP is bought and paid for by the DeVos family whose end goal is to replace public education with for profit charters.

J. Katakowski
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:55pm

This the Michigan Legislature specifically who would it be republicans? Why, do they interfere with education when they have no training whatsoever ever in it. Right now obesity is an issue for all the States. Health issues etc. suicides. We need educators to address these issues so please keep the GOP out of it. Thank you.

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 11:10am

I wonder why 'educators' are suppose to be dealing with all these other things [health issues, suicides, etc.], why not have then simply focus on student learning and use the medical and social experts to focus on the other issues?
It seems the politicians [especially Democrats] want to abuse well established organizations and facilities to become the surreptitious means to expand government spending.
Smart people build on their strengths and employ others with the particular strengths that are needed. Why can't we have 'educators' work on student learning the knowledge and skills they will need when they graduate and stop using the 'educators' to be the means of delivering medical services and social services?

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 3:50pm

Duane, it is not widgets anymore. Public education serves everyone so they can not just do certain strengths etc. Oh please quit picking on the Democrats. Talk about your hero DeVos and charter schools.

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 10:24am

You honesty don't believe that the Democrats are promoting using the schools as a delivery source of social services, meals, medical care?
It does seem that Sec. DeVos does have a view on education that she is presenting in her role [though I believe all previous Sec of Education felt that was part of the role] of Sec of Ed.
Why not let teachers teach and at most let them call in social services 'experts' when the teacher is finding students whose learning performance appears influenced by things outside the classroom? I thinkt trying to get students fully engaged in their learning process is important enough, sufficiently challenging enough , and so important for the student long term that the classroom professional should be allowed/encouraged to focus exclusively on learning. Would you expect a medical care professional to compete with a teacher in the learning process, or a social welfare professional take over a classroom? If not, then why expect a teaching professional take over medical care or social welfare professions roles simply because the student in need happens to be in their classroom?

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 10:33am

Ah, Betsy DeVos - with no educational background, never went to or sent her kids to public schools knows so much about education?
She has a large financial interest in charter schools and wants to promote them for her political agenda.
Is that your 'expert'?
Go sign up to be an Amway 'distributor' and get rich! Trust Betsy - you will.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 8:10pm

I do understand how your comments relate to my comments. My point is let the teachers teach and leave responsiblilty of other services to the respective professionals.

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 9:17am

Educating a young person who has much to learn about himself, others, and the world is a very multi-faceted task. It includes the whole person now and in the future. Their developing mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being needs to be considered. Life-long learning is part of what the H.S. curriculum has always offered in many different ways. Physical education and health classes are examples which have been important for young people to get involved in and hopefully continue with the rest of their lives. Physical education and health classes help students develop an understanding of who they are and what they want and can be.

Dawn Adkins
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 8:40am

I agree with the idea of dropping gym requirements for those who chose but keeping health class is important. Gym class can actually create a high level of anxiety for those that aren't sports driven and competitive like their peers.

Concerned teacher
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 8:44am

The thinking is going in the wrong direction. We should be thinking about Physical Education in a more flexible way. That is beyond sports and more toward lifetime health and activity. Health needs to be more relevant to the variety of lifestyle choices and maintaining good health within those choices.

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 9:28am

Years ago it was a few minutes of exercise/warm-ups and then dodge ball or some sports related activity. 'Concerned Teacher' makes a great point - look down the road. Many will not play sports either in high school or after. But I agree that lifetime activity is something that could help us all. And basic health education could help someone avoid poor choices which can often lead to expensive health care costs. So please don't drop 'PE' and health classes - maybe take a different direction as suggested by "Concerned Teacher".

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 8:48am

Why is the legislature trying to "fix" education again? Michigan's educational system has been in a "steep" decline for years. Until Michigan begins some real innovation in education, it will remain at the bottom of the pile.

This is part of the MAGA cohort of legislators who think they have all the answers, have so many hangups it is sad, and who try to legislate for the state based on their 1950's beliefs.

We need a holistic approach to education, which includes body, mind and spirit. My advice to the legislature is to stop trying to "fix" something they obviously know nothing about. We need a part time legislature!!!

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 8:50am

Speaking as a college writing instructor, the majority of undergraduate students I work with, including some who took and passed AP English in high school, are unprepared for college-level writing. Basic writing skills are far more essential to success in the workplace and in life than Algebra II.

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 9:54am

You teach college and took the topic about PE and turned it into a self-promotional comment about the importance of your writing classes over math classes? Where is your sense of logic???? I not only question your credentials to teach, but question your observations about the topic at hand. It's true that many students are unprepared for college, but it's just as true that private schools and home schools do no better than public schools. The problem is that school funding has been cut too much over the years, not kept up with inflation.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 12:38pm

Yes. All we ever hear from Republicans is cutting funding. For everything they don't like, whether it makes sense or not.

Paul Roese
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 9:03am

yeah i like Bumstead's logic, “Lansing politicians and bureaucrats have decided that all children must fit into the same mold,” so i guess that means he is against core curriculum and requiring students to "fit the same mold" when it comes to math and English?

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 9:11am

Our Michigan legislature and governor need to get out of the school policy business, a responsibility our constitution assigns to our elected State Board of Education not the legislature or governor, and focus on their constitutionally mandated function, funding.
Too many cooks are spoiling the soup.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 9:32am

I don't think that reducing the number/difficulty of the subjects required in order to graduate from high school should be diminished any further, quite honestly.

Often, HS graduates entering college are required to take remedial courses for subjects that, had they been requirements in order to graduate, they would have already covered.
The 'dumbing down' of graduation requirements, especially as compared to the graduation requirements of other First-World countries, makes no sense.

How is it helpful for any young adult to enter with world with less or less-advanced education?

Thu, 02/06/2020 - 2:35pm

The first comment I’ve seen that addresses the reality of what students will do when faced with no requirements. Keep the graduation requirements, but allow some flexibility in how you achieve those. For example, tech classes in healthcare could meet the health credit. Participation in marching band could meet the PE requirement. By removing requirements, legislators are setting up schools for failure in meeting the standards mandated by their own planning. (I sense a scheme in the making.) Most importantly, students who may not have a sense yet of how education standards can help them in their future plans are short changed by a free public education.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 9:55am

If we keep this up, soon no courses will be required to graduate.

Many children go on to post secondary education still searching for a career. K-12 is supposed to teach all the fundamentals and expose the children to a broad array of what’s available in life. Our schools are deficient if they do not give this to the children.

jane thomas
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 10:17am

Physical education is very important for both physical and mental health. Further, Algebra II should NOT be dropped as a requirement. Our republican legislature really appears to have no clue about what education is all about, nor what the future work requirements are going to be.
Bumstead is a perfect name for this state senator who supports this deplorable effort to water down education.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 10:30am

Well the Republicans in this State who seem to have limited education and common sense, once again are at it trying to prove that they know all about education. They are in the same vein as a Tennessee Republican legislator who proposed abolishing college education because that education was encouraging liberalism and another, perhaps in Tennessee, who proposed a medical procedure on women that was not close to being possible.

Of course these same Republicans oppose health care so, presumably, if children don't get physical education and health education in high school, they will grow obese and die earlier. And if they don't have to take Algebra to graduate from high school l that will help them get jobs in low paying service positions in order to keep from getting better paid technical jobs.
My we do have the unthinking in our State legislature. And they still cannot "fix the roads."

Jeffrey Kless
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 12:10pm

This makes sense if you believe that obesity is good and that healthcare costs will rise and physicians will benefit are also good.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 1:46pm

Current PE requirment is not excesive.

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 1:52pm

What's really amazing is how folks who complain that the legislature shouldn't butt into how schools run themselves, (THIRD GRADE RETENTION!!!!), then whine when the legislature moves to drop a requirement they approve of. Which way is it? Do you want the state to micromanage schools or not? Or only when you like it? Are schools not able to require classes they want their students to take?

Tue, 02/04/2020 - 2:57pm

Right on eliminate P.E. and health classes so they can spend more time texting and on their tablets. R. L. A little sarcasm.

Marni H.
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 3:20pm

The Republicans increasingly seem to want to keep Michiganders, (and the rest of the nation), sick, stupid and obese. They poison our water and our food and now they're going after our kids, again. It's becoming more and more blatant too. Some serious reckoning for these people someday.

Donna Anuskiewicz
Tue, 02/04/2020 - 5:46pm

One of the purposes of public education is to produce literate, engaged citizens. Students who don't have time to play team sports need physical education for exercise and to learn team work. The idea of making U.S. history and civics elective is ludicrous. Americans must know what their country stands for and how its government operates. For students not going on to college, high school may be their last chance to take an art course or try their hand at creative writing. I graduated from college not knowing what I wanted to do. Eventually I realized that I was called to teach, and I stayed in the classroom for forty years. I loved just about every minute of it, but one of my pet peeves was putting up with suggestions from people who came up with "education" ideas that didn't take into account the needs of the whole child but focused only on those of future employers.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 10:30am

Every time I think the Michigan GOP has gone as low as they can, they surprise me.
Let me see: record obesity, diabetes in younger and younger children, kids getting less and less exercise and the rightwing GOPers decide getting rid of physical education is a great idea.
Truly unbelievable. Just off the wall dumb.

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 3:14pm

This is not the GOP's fault. This falls squarely on the shoulders of lazy parents.

Fit Critical Thinker
Fri, 02/07/2020 - 1:13pm

By all means, let's keep 'em fat and stupid.
It's the Republican way.

Alex de Toc
Fri, 02/07/2020 - 1:49pm

Michigan should not ensure young people get the tools they need to be fit, critical thinkers, active in democracy or able to make a decent living, unless they are born into the aristocracy.

When they are sick, obese, poor, muddy-thinking, and distracted by the inconsequential, the plebes are so much easier to control.

Fri, 02/07/2020 - 11:55pm

All high school juniors are required to take a state assessment that tests math up to trig (the SAT). I see no mention of removing the requirement that all students take this assessment (which is then used to “rank” schools by the latest inept system the state govt has created). So....removing the requirements to take Alg 2 but still assess schools as if students took the course... What a great way to provide “evidence” that schools aren’t doing the job.

Sun, 02/09/2020 - 10:25am

When I was in high school were required to take one semester of physical ed and that was it. I don't see why we couldn't apply that at all schools. If the students prefers to continue with physical education, I don't see a problem with that as long it remains as a choice. Not every one enjoys sports, myself included.

Mon, 02/10/2020 - 12:02pm

I'm pretty sure that Algebra II concepts are tested to some extent on the SAT and ACT, not to mention in college-level math and physics. It's understandable that not everyone intends to go to college, but for those that do, nixing requirements *probably* does not help in increasingly competitive academic and career spheres. Flexibility in curriculum is very important, but this has to be addressed without axing necessities.

Fri, 02/14/2020 - 3:04pm

I'm on the fence. I don't feel the state should require kids to take electives at all (art, gym, etc). However, on the flipside of the coin, a lot of kids are overweight and school is the only exercise they'll get. Many parents either won't buy or can't buy healthier food and electronics are the new babysitters for their children. One part of me says this is a slippery slope. The other part says survival of the fittest. Gym class didn't do me any favors in high school. I was active regardless of gym class. Algebra 2 is a class I was required to take but have not used a day in my life since high school. Personally, the requirements need to be completely rethought.

Jamie Buchanan
Mon, 02/17/2020 - 11:21pm

I think there are a lot of details left out of this article. The class of 2011 was the first class that had to meet these requirements. Prior to that, the only state required course was a 1/2 credit of civics. Individual school districts choose the other credits. There was still physical education, health, history, etc...before the state required it. The real question is who should set the standards, the state or local districts?