How much controversy could possibly surround an organization whose purpose is to elevate physical literacy and improve health literacy for all students in the United States?
How much controversy could be produced in order to discredit a project that gives away free, high-quality resources to tens of thousands of teachers — a project that positively impacts tens of millions of students?
More than you would expect.
But any time an industry is disrupted, emotions will run high.
From the start of the OPEN project, our singular focus has been to help teachers — particularly those who hadn’t been able to participate in a culture of expensive curriculum products and inaccessible professional development options. US Games empowered our efforts, and today, we’re the largest public service organization working in the physical education community. So how did we get here?
PEP Grant Funding Created Gross Inequity
At the start of it all, I personally believed the PEP Grant program had the power to elevate the physical education community. Nearly 20 years later, I look at the dust of it all and can confidently say that I was wrong.
The PEP program unintentionally accelerated and intensified inequality in physical education; it created a very small layer of physical education ultra-rich and an enormous population of physical education have-nots.
These funds also supported a thriving physical education marketplace, where both vendors and professional organizations targeted the few disproportionately rich PEP districts and organizations who helped generate year-over-year revenue growth. That growth kept conference vendor halls packed and — over the span of 20 years — firmly established a dominant status quo.
For the first five years of my work in this industry, the thrill of PEP grant announcements was incredible. I’d organize the list of winners, strategize on how their narratives matched products and services, and then jump on an airplane to go and help.
I worked extremely hard to create expensive curriculum products that were only afforded to the few. I spent hundreds of hours designing and delivering professional development experiences that less than 15% of our community would ever experience. I eagerly demonstrated physical education products that “normal” non-PEP budgets could not afford — or sustain — once grant funding was gone.
I also worked with well-intentioned people across our community to fight for this system. When we looked at PEP school districts, we saw the possibilities of what physical education could become. But I didn’t want to do the math — I didn’t want to look at the facts that would have exposed a system of gross inequity.
And so I continued to craft PEP grant proposals, narratives, and budgets — bringing hope to hundreds of physical educators. I celebrated with a few of them when they were awarded funds. More often, though, I had to try to console those who were told their proposals weren’t worth funding. They were broken by the news, and many went back to their physical education islands of isolation with a lost sense of purpose and deep despair. Some left our profession all together.
PEP Couldn’t Last Forever
If you’re among those who went through this process only to come up empty handed, you know I’m not exaggerating the emotional toll. Writing a PEP grant proposal was a monumental effort for any physical educator. Teachers finished the process emotionally exhausted, and hearing bad news after all that work was demoralizing.
As an accomplice in a system that benefited so few, I watched this happen over and over again. It took an emotional toll on me, too, and I began to burn out. I knew that in my capacity, I would never be able to help those who held losing PEP lottery tickets.
It’s interesting (and important) to note that while I worked in this system of inequity, I generated zero controversy. Everyone understood the way the world worked; we lobbied our state and federal governments to keep it that way. The community was stable for those who benefited. Or at least it seemed.
Everyone should have seen the end of the PEP era coming, but it was hard for a lot of people to admit what was clearly on the horizon. A few of us felt that this end should be embraced — even celebrated — but most others deeply mourned the death of PEP.
Eventually, that mourning turned to panic as vendors and organizations realized that they had failed to prepare.
When Preparation Meets Opportunity
This was the environment that gave birth to OPEN — an experiment in equity as a public service to the many. But what’s critically important to underscore here is that OPEN did not disrupt the physical education marketplace.
The top of this article made it sound that way — because that’s exactly what many people assume to be true. (To be honest, if I allowed my personal ego to run free, I would absolutely perpetuate this false narrative.)
But the truth of the matter is this: The conflation of PEP Grant program cuts, the rise of social media, and the gross overpricing of curriculum products and services is what disrupted the physical education marketplace.
OPEN is an example of what’s possible when preparation meets opportunity. We purposefully prepared for the end of PEP, and we seized the opportunity to serve the masses by providing equity of access to what was once available only to the fortunate few.
Those products and services that I created in the past are now irrelevant — not because the content or ideas were flawed, but because the dissemination model was broken. In today’s post-PEP world, teachers don’t have to pay $299 for a book of lessons that only serves 3 grade levels; Twitter can connect them with a personal learning network and grant them FREE access to quality content, delivered instantly. OPEN is just one option available in this new reality.
So, why the controversy? In short: OPEN is in direct opposition to the status quo that existed in the PEP era. That status quo wants to resurrect a system that benefited the fortunate few. (And honestly? People don’t like change.)
OPEN Challenges This Status Quo
For a very long time, our community has been told that expensive binders, books, and memberships will make you a true professional. We’ve been told that curriculum and professional development experiences must be costly, and that if we’re worthy of being true physical educators, we’ll find a way to get the funds we need to participate alongside the fortunate few.
That narrative is a lie. It deliberately misleads physical educators and undermines the physical literacy experience of millions of students.
So, in order to create a new reality, and to purposefully grow our mission-based movement, OPEN must directly question — and challenge — that status quo.
We’re not challenging organizations who are working on behalf of physical educators. We’re not even confronting competitors, many of whom have been important and active contributing members of the physical education community for decades.
OPEN also doesn’t hold ownership over the movement toward equity and empowerment — there are other people and organizations working toward the democratization of our community, too. This is great news. We have amazing partners, and we will always welcome productive discussion with other like-minded leaders.
There are even signs that some of the companies and organizations that have been holding tightly to the status quo are starting to let go. They’re beginning to see the power and capacity of the entire physical education community — not just the fortunate few. Again, great news.
US Games and BSN Sports led the way in this early movement by empowering the physical educators who created, launched, and have continued to grow OPEN as a public service organization. I am extremely grateful for their faith in us and their continued commitment. OPEN is a part of their corporate family, and we’re proud of our affiliation.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll detail how our beliefs shaped our purpose. OPEN was not created to serve corporate profit or to attack companies and organizations — OPEN was created to elevate the physical education profession.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading, learning, and hopefully sharing the OPEN perspective with those who oppose our work. Point them to this blog series and invite them to engage in conversations — with me or with any other member of the OPEN and BSN Sports leadership teams. We welcome the opportunity to learn and grow from everyone interested in elevating physical literacy and improving health literacy for our nation’s young people.
It’s an amazing time to be a physical educator.