Is 50 Million Strong Meeting the Needs of the Profession or Children?

Author’s Note:  I wrote this on October 18th of 2016 and shared it with a few colleagues.  I held off publishing it because it’s just my opinion and I’m not sure that non-profits should be critiqued.  I’m publishing it upon return from Boston as a concerned professional – Chris Hersl

What if you had a party and no one knew they were invited?  When no one shows up is it an insult to the host or the reality that the message didn’t get out there?  As health and physical education professionals we are living out the party analogy in real life with SHAPE America’s 50 Million Strong campaign that calls on, “…all of America’s health and physical educators to unite and focus on a common purpose — getting all of the nation’s children physically active, enthusiastic and committed to making healthy lifestyle choices.”

Healthy lifestyle choices seems like an admirable goal. Personally, if my 6 and 3 year old were enthusiastically choosing healthy options, engaging in physical activity I would feel very content as a parent.  So great, I’m a health and physical educator and I’m ready to do it; but what is it?  SHAPE America’s website dedicates an entire section to the 50 Million Strong movement.  Excitedly, I see that there are three places I can start; Commit, Champion and Advocate.

Following the “Commit” link on the web I am encouraged to download new posters highlighting the SHAPE America National Standards.  If I’m not a SHAPE member there is a convenient link to join.  Additionally, I’m given tips on being an effective health and physical education teacher.  I’m still not sure what I am committing to?  If it is standards based instruction I’m there but I’m not sure that’s it.

Champion sounds promising.  What are the virtues that I’m going to Champion and sell to a willing public who will immediately fund me beyond my wildest dreams with more equipment then my equipment room can store.  I’m given three suggestions.  First, implement the new President’s Youth Fitness Testing Program.  Second, I should sign up for Let’s Move Active Schools and finally, I would be wise to consider running a Hoops or Jump for Heart to teach students about living a heart healthy lifestyle.

All three of those things are wonderful programs but does the PYFT program support 50 Million Strong in a way that previous fitness testing programs did not?  If my schools were always participating in Fitnessgram testing what has changed?

LMAS is one of a handful of programs that follow the same format.  Needs analysis, plan, implement, analyze and repeat.  It’s a great plan and a quality assessment but to implement it successfully in most schools or districts a willing and able team is necessary for support.  LMAS paralells the Wellness Policy movement and, if done with fidelity, will absolutely allow a group to analyze and improve on their policies and practices.

American Heart Association has worked hard to have a quality educational component which is a wonderful focus for a jump rope unit leading up to a Jump Rope for Heart event.  The tradition of this event is in the culture of many schools and communities and leads to local partnerships. A quick glance of the AHA website shows no mention of the 50 Million Strong movement.

Let’s be honest, in addition to being an educational program,  JRFH is a fundraiser and while we can argue about the financial split between AHA, SHAPE, schools and state affiliates until the cows come home; one has to wonder why a fundraiser worth millions of dollars does not even generate mention of the 50 Million Strong campaign.

So I’m confused still; is my program preparing kids to be a part of the 50 Million Strong and who will know and care that they are strong (and that there are 50 million of them). Furthermore, will doing Fitnessgram, LMAS and JRFH increase physical activity?  I’d argue that only one of the three focuses on that and it is the hardest to logistically implement.  Fitnessgram and JRFH have been around a long time; has something changed that will now cause them to help our 50 million students become more active and committed to healthier choices?

Well. at least SHAPE is advocating for me to help inform educational influencers that this movement has started and all that it has accomplished in two years.  I see fantastic state by state advocacy resources on the website including social media messaging, data, contacts etc…  I am sure that all of my colleagues will be wearing their 50 Million Strong shirts and using the  “I Support the 50 Million Strong” social media profile pictures.

Excitedly, I did a Google search to see all of the publicity about 50 Million Strong.  It took 7 pages to find an item that was not written by SHAPE or its state affiliates.  Certainly the mentions on Twitter would be overwhelming!  Turns out, not so much.  When searching the #SHAPE50Million hashtag I counted 26 uses in the last month by 6-7 unique users most of whom appeared connected to leadership in state affiliates.

SHAPE’s advocacy department has done amazing work on ESSA and supporting us on Capitol Hill but 50 Million Strong is a different animal.  No one knows this movement exists and that leads us back to the question that we started with.  If we are having a 50 Million Strong party and none of the 50 Million know that they are invited is the party happening?

This party is not happening, and we are down to 13 years to get the dancing started.  SHAPE leadership from the Board of Directors to employees can no longer sit silent and pretend that this movement is growing and that the public is conscious of our movement.  There is no better time than now, with ESSA reform happening nationwide, to be screaming from the mountain top about 50 Million Strong.

SHAPE membership deserves to know the plan, we also deserve to know how effective the plan has been thus far.  I’ve read the inspiring best practice stories, but have they changed our profession and our challenges in getting students to make healthy choices?  While these programs were shared they do not appear to be being replicated in other places.

What are the possible answers that our largest financial sponsors and benefactors do not have their logo proudly attached to our most important campaign?  How are they joined with us in the 50 Million Strong campaign?

Most importantly, how will we know that students are more active and making healthier choices?  There do not appear to be measurable benchmarks for this program.  While that appears to be intentional because leadership does not wish to limit the possibilities it creates a challenging sell for the teacher/supervisor in a local district.

Imagine the conversation,

  • Teacher: Superintendent, I’d like us to join the 50 Million Strong program
  • Supt: What is it?  How will it help our students?
  • Teacher: It will help our students be more active and make healthier choices.
  • Supt: Great!  How will we implement it?
  • Teacher: Well, we can do anything, kind of, there are some preferred things, but we can make up what we want as long as it is good.
  • Supt: Great!  How will we know it’s good?
  • Teacher: We will participate in standards based teaching and partner programs.
  • Supt: Great!  Don’t we do that already?
  • Teacher: Yes…
  • Supt: Great!  So how will this cause behavior changes for kids?  I want to share with our parents the gains we are making.
  • Teacher: Umm… we don’t have any data yet.  It isn’t done until 2029.
  • Supt: Oh ok.  When is the first benchmark measurement to see if we are on the right track?
  • Teacher: 2029 – but we do have a great logo that’s been developed.

Seattle and Minneapolis have come and gone.  Boston is on the horizon.  How many meetings will we have nationally before we examine and report of the effectiveness of this movement?  Specifically, I would respectfully ask the following questions:

  1. What measurable improvements have been made to the students’ activity levels and healthy choices? How do we know?
  2. What evidence, anecdotal or data, do we have that professionals are actively participating in the program? What percentage of our thousands of members are participating?
  3. How much money is being spent on this program? What is this money being used on? Is future funding certain?
  4. How is SHAPE America sharing this program with influencers nationally and locally? How are we to get buy in when our partner organizations do not seem to fully be aware or market the movement?
  5. Is there a communication strategy for the movement? How are we measuring the publicity and interactions we are getting in the media?

Sometimes we must have the difficult professional conversation.  This is the time for our profession.  The opportunity for change through ESSA is real, we must have our premier national organization maximizing our exposure and working with us to make sure that all of our actions have the desired benefit.

Publisher’s Note: Chris originally published this essay on March 19th, 2017 on his personal blog “P.E. Forward – Advocating for and Celebrating Quality Physical Education. Chris gave PHE America permission to reprint the essay here. We encourage readers to share thoughts and comments about the issues Chris discusses in the space below.


50 Million Strong Case Studies

Read how your teaching colleagues are showing their commitment to increasing physical activity and bringing good health to their students! Remember - It begins with US (and that includes physical and health educators everywhere!)  


  1. Insightful and provoking article. I plan to address your five questions, particularly the those that are assessment related. I can assure you the SHAPE America Board is not sitting silent. I will be in touch!
    Dr. Fran Cleland
    SHAPE America President

    • Dr. Cleland,
      Speaking with one of our long time Maryland supervisors, I know some exciting things are in the work and I look forward to seeing the work that is happening.

  2. Chris provided a possible conversation with a Superintendent about SHAPE America’s commitment to 50 Million Strong by 2029. Here is how I would imagine the conversation.
    • Teacher: Superintendent, I’d like us to join the 50 Million Strong program
    • Supt: What is it? How will it help our students?
    • Teacher: Well it is not actually a specific program but rather a commitment to ensure that all students graduate with the skills, knowledge and commitment to be physically active and make healthy choices. We will work to make sure our students actually make it a habit to be physically active 60 minutes daily and make healthier choices.
    • Supt: Great! How will we implement it?
    • Teacher: It’s not a particular program to be implemented. It’s a commitment to ensure that we evaluate the extent to which our graduating students are prepared to lead healthy, physically active lives. If they are, great—we’ll keep doing what we have been doing. If they are not we will build an action plan to address whatever barriers are in the way.
    • Supt: So how do we determine if students are prepared?
    • Teacher: One suggestion is for us to sign up to do the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey in our district and get local data related to our students’ healthy behaviors. We could also develop a project-based instruction unit that would allow students to document their mastery of the skills, knowledge, and commitment required. The project portfolio would also provide us with data on how successful we were being and give us insight into stumbling blocks that get in the way. We will also participate in standards-based teaching and partner programs.
    • Supt: Great! Don’t we do that already?
    • Teacher: Yes, but we have never gathered data on whether all of our students are developing a personal commitment to being physically active and making healthy choices. We need to think deeply about which students we are reaching and which ones we aren’t to help us evaluate the success of our program.
    • Supt: Great! So how will this cause behavior changes for kids? I want to share the gains we are making with our parents and community.
    • Teacher: Well, making this 50 Million Strong commitment will push us to make sure we are looking for those behavior changes that show students are becoming committed to a healthy lifestyle.
    • Supt: Ok. When can we make the first benchmark measurement to see if we are on the right track?
    • Teacher: We can look into giving the YRBS survey to our district today. We can set up a process to give it every year and track progress with our graduating classes. National data is done every 2 years so we can see how our school compares to the national performance levels. I sure would like to beat the 2029 date for getting all our students prepared to live healthy, physically active lives.

  3. Dolly,
    In Maryland we have adopted the SHAPE standards at the state level. We have a statewide high school requirement that ends with a fitness plan and portfolio. Maryland has participated in the YRBS for as long as there has been a YRBS. Professional development from the state and district level has focused on standards based instruction. In fact, our state association is working on it’s second “report card” of health and PE programs in our 24 districts to see if growth is occurring. With ESSA we have lobbied tirelessly at every avenue we can in Maryland to be included in the State plan.
    So the resounding theme is becoming, “it’s not a program; it’s a commitment/vision” There is an absolute total lack of awareness of the commitment/vision by a majority of the members of the profession and the entirety of the educational community as a whole. While great advocacy resources exist, and while social media is becoming more active it is all in the same relatively small circle of people.
    Physical activity is increasing in our classrooms, but the only place I see the 50 Million Strong logo is on my social media avatar. At some point, SHAPE will need to suggest what the 50 Million Strong campaign is actually accomplishing that was not happening before.
    I realize the depth of your service and commitment to our profession but change is necessary here. Hopefully we will find it together. As of right now 14% of our admins report they want ESSA to spend money on H/PE, 43% want routers….. We need to communicate our vision. Soon.

  4. Chris, without a doubt SHAPE America can and should do more to inform and accelerate progress with its 50 Million Strong vision. Two years on from its announcement, as you rightly note too few people know or care much about 50 Million Strong. And until it gets broad professional support little will change. Completely agree and I too feel a sense of frustration: A need for a much greater sense of urgency and action. But to be fair I also routinely remind myself that 50MS is not just about what others are or are not doing but what I am doing. It seems to me that each one of us has a role to play and something worth contributing. I am acutely aware that I no longer teach kids in schools and can’t do much to change behaviors at that level. Consequently, I spend a lot of time writing about 50MS and trying to stimulate the thinking and actions of others. Not sure how much impact it has but at least I’m trying. It sounds as if a lot is happening in Maryland to attempt to move physical and health education forward, and for that you and others are to be commended. But clearly you (like all states) are not where you would like to be. SHAPE America does not have the resources to do what’s needed in any single state in the US. It can help and I hope will help more in the future. But as with other change movements if 50MS succeeds it will do so because of individuals taking charge of things that they can change and not waiting for others. These people will create mini-revolutions that the rest of us grasp onto, learn from, copy, and implement. If you think back Phil Lawler did something very similar in Naperville many years ago. Phil didn’t wait for a national association to do anything but set out on his own and was hugely influential in changing public perceptions of physical education. I’m hopeful that somewhere a teacher will take it upon him or herself to create the 50MS vision within a school and show the many benefits we believe will result. More teachers will copy this and the revolution envisaged will begin. Like most revolutions I suspect it’s going to start somewhere on the ground and not be orchestrated from above. It seems to be that you have the vision and interest to get 50MS really taking off in Maryland. Thanks for a great essay.

Join the Discussion