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The Answer Blog

Archive for March, 2010

Pity the Kids in Texas and Elsewhere, Too

March 24, 2010

I have a particular interest in the recent actions of the Texas State Board of Education because of my five years of service on New Jersey’s State Board of Education. Last week, the Texas board voted to revise the state’s K-12 social studies curriculum based on right wing, conservative ideology and not sound facts.

The board’s actions were antithetical to the educational welfare of students; they put their own ideological views about issues ahead of young people’s right to receive unbiased information in the classroom.

State education board members across the nation are entrusted with setting policies for public school students. It is a challenge and responsibility to get it right for the kids. I personally found it challenging to keep kids’ needs in the forefront when making decisions. Many adult groups constantly put pressure on board members to keep their needs at the forefront, ahead of the needs of students.

My service on the board introduced me to the topic of sexuality education, or family life education, as we referred to it then. In 1982, we passed a policy that required local districts to develop their own family life education programs, but did not provide a single curriculum for the entire state. Before passing the policy, we consulted with experts and studied polls showing that the majority of New Jersey residents favored it.

My colleagues and I believed that we were helping young people lead safer, healthier, and more responsible lives when we required family life education. The mandate has been deemed a success in the 30-plus years since its adoption.

But I am not so sure that what just happened in Texas will benefit students. The statewide K-12 social studies curriculum covers history, economics, and sociology. The 15 board members – all of whom were elected to their positions – did not consult any historians, economists, or sociologists about their changes. None of the members were professionals in these fields. Experienced teachers and professors in the disciplines submitted a series of recommended changes, but these were brushed aside by board ideologues.

The majority rejected their suggestions as products of “liberal teachers and academia,” and instead passed curricular changes based on their own strict brand of conservatism.

The majority passed more than 100 amendments to the 120-page curriculum. The more egregious changes in the history portion included insertion of such dubiously important, Republican-loved topics as the Moral Majority, Contract for America, Phyllis Schlafly, The Heritage Foundation, “the conservative resurgence during the 1980s and 1990s,” and the removal of passages on the separation of church and state.

In place of the latter, it added St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and William Blackstone and eliminated Thomas Jefferson, our Declaration of Independence author and champion of the separation of church and state. It also inserted the statement that our country’s leaders were “guided by Christian principles,” to downplay the Founding Fathers’ credo on establishing a secular nation.

The changes to the historical portion of the Texas curriculum affected black and Hispanic youth. According to news reports, a Hispanic board member “stormed out” of the meeting when the all-white, all-Republican majority refused to add even one Hispanic role model to the changes.

Equally insulting to minority students was the majority’s decision to achieve curricular parity when it came to discussion of the civil rights movement. It insisted that the curriculum include not only the nonviolent philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but also the “violent philosophy” of the Black Panthers, a very small and extreme radical group.

When it came to economics, the majority insisted on removing the word “capitalism,” because the phrase “capitalist pig” has negative connotations. In its place, they inserted “free-enterprise system” – not because it was more correct, but because the majority didn’t want to show that our system has any weakness.

As I read about the changes in the history and economic sections, I wondered if there would be any references to sexuality education in the sociology section. Sure enough, I found one. Board member Barbara Cargill shepherded through an amendment insisting on teaching “personal responsibility for life choices-teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use, and eating disorders” (emphasis mine).

This coupling of sexuality with socially negative topics sends a not-too-subtle signal to educators that they should teach sexuality from a fear- and shame-based perspective, an approach that is not supported by research.

If these changes go through – and the consensus is that they will be passed again in May – we can pity Texas public school students about what they will and will not learn. But the Texas vote may cast a longer shadow on what children in other states will learn, too.

Nationwide, 20 states vote to adopt textbooks for all schools districts, the largest of which are Texas and California. Textbook publishers develop books based on the curricular requirements of these state boards, because of the large numbers of public school students in the states.

Fortunately, such decisions do not have the same effect that they once did. Advances in digital publishing have minimized the outsized influence big states once had on textbook purchases. But the danger still lurks that books designed for kids in Texas will also be read in many other states. (New Jersey’s state board does not purchase textbooks for school districts.)

We can prevent travesties like the one in Texas by creating national standards in education. Last week, a panel of education experts led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers made recommendations for national standards in reading and math for K-12 students.

If accepted by states, national standards would greatly diminish local and state control of educational policy, and children from the most affluent to the poorest school districts would learn from the same high standards. These would be educationally sound, rigorous, apolitical, and developed by experts.

Sadly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the first news stories about the panel’s recommendations reported that educational policymakers in Texas are among those in only a couple states likely to refuse to adopt the proposed national standards for reading and math.

As a former state education board member, I see a much brighter future for national standards. Once state policymakers and board members see how reading and math standards improve educational outcomes for children in their own states, they will adopt national standards in other subjects.

And wonder of wonders, in the fullness of time, states may even adopt national standards in heath and sexuality education. Then students in Texas – and elsewhere – will learn about the positive aspects of human sexuality.

I can dream, can’t I?

Image by Rishabh Mishra.

What Regan Hofmann Can Tell Us about HIV, AIDS … and Life

March 17, 2010

She walks into Boro Bean, a small coffeehouse in Hopewell, N.J., and you can’t decide if she’s a ray of sunshine or a beam of moonlight. She shimmers. She has long blonde hair and wears brown, high-heeled boots. Tall and model-thin, she is elegant even in torn jeans – and suddenly it seems like everyone who’s staring at her wide smile and blue eyes feels better. She is so alive.

This is Regan Hofmann, who has been living with HIV for 14 years.

Hofmann grew up in Princeton, N.J., and graduated from the private, co-ed Princeton Day School and Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Soon after, she married and moved to Atlanta, GA, with her husband, where she was hoping to find a writing job. Then the marriage failed.

After her divorce at 28, Hofmann started dating a man.

“I had sex without a condom twice,” she says.

She never imagined her boyfriend was HIV positive.

“He seemed so clean and safe. He had a nice family. He sang to me and let me drive the boat, with his arms wrapped protectively around my shoulders, when we went waterskiing,” she said.

He was the kind of man she’d bring home to her family. She didn’t know that he had a sore on his leg that would not heal. He did not know the implications of his sore.

But Hofmann knew that shortly after unprotected sex – when she and her boyfriend were in the process of breaking up – she had a swollen lymph node in her upper leg. She went to the doctor, who gave her an HIV test.

He gave her the results with these words: “I don’t know how to tell you this, so I am just going to tell you. Your blood work shows that you are HIV-positive. I am so sorry.”

Back then, Hofmann considered HIV a death sentence. But instead of “planning for my impending death and a graceful demise with a service of song, dance, drink, and celebration,” she is now “completely and thankfully healthy.”

She estimates that she has consumed over 48,000 pills over the past 14 years – mostly protease-inhibitors, which have kept the virus at bay. Today, her regime is down to three pills a day.

She has never had a negative reaction to the drugs or suffered ill effects from HIV. She sums up her good health by saying, quite calmly, “You can have a normal life with HIV.”

ReganHofmann_optHer ex-boyfriend died five years ago from complications of AIDS. Hofmann says he didn’t know he had the virus or that he was passing it along to her. She says he was not “a gift-giver” – a person who knowingly and intentionally passes along HIV.

Hofmann tells her story in an exceptionally well-written book, I Have Something to Tell You. It reads like a novel and is selling well. (”Even my plumber has read it,” she confides.)

She says that writing the book – and more importantly, telling the truth about life with HIV – was “a new beginning.” It led her to become an activist and gave her life a mission: “to tell everyone in the world willing to listen how to prevent getting HIV, how to get tested, how to get proper treatment in order to live, and how to change the insulting stigma so often associated with the disease.”

Hofmann fulfills her mission in several ways: She is editor-in-chief of POZ, a national magazine for people living with HIV and AIDS. And she recently joined the board of directors of AmfAR, The Foundation for AIDS research, by far the most important organization of its kind in the U.S.

Despite years of hard work, Hofmann worries she’s not doing enough. She’s deeply concerned about the current state of the pandemic.

“The world and America are suffering from ‘AIDS apathy,’ ” she says.

The numbers she reels off are proof that there is no reason for complacency: Every nine seconds, someone in the world is diagnosed with HIV; 33.4 million people are estimated to be living with the virus, and 25 million have died from AIDS to date. The numbers, she says, “make the HIV/AIDS pandemic far and away the worst medical catastrophe to have visited humankind since the Black Death struck Europe in the 14th century.”

Hofmann is concerned about the disease’s effect on women, particularly African-American women. AIDS is the number-one killer of women between the ages of 15 and 44 worldwide; in the U.S., 27 percent of people infected with HIV are female and disproportionately African-American (although the good news is that African-American men are more likely to get tested than other racial and ethnic groups).

“Women are not in a position of power when it comes to sex,” says Hofmann, when asked about the discrepancy in numbers. She talks of women she has seen in her travels who are caught up in the sex trade.

“They have sex to make money to buy food to feed their children. They make more money if they have sex without a condom – almost five times more than if they have sex with a man who uses one,” she says.

She sees the development and use of microbicides as one of the most promising preventive interventions to emerge over the past decade. She says they are an effective weapon against HIV/AIDS for young girls forced into early marriage in sub-Sahara Africa and other parts of the developing world. These young women are often infected by their older husbands, who have had unprotected sex with HIV-positive prostitutes.

Hofmann’s activist work has taken her as far away as Vietnam and as near as Greenwich, CT. She remembers a visit to a Greenwich middle school, when a supervisor warned her not to answer any questions about sex, and a 12-year-old male student asked her if it was safe to keep a condom in his wallet. Hoffman plowed ahead and answered him: “Just make sure that you check the expiration date on the condom and don’t use it if it has expired.” The student shot back: “Oh, I’ll get to it long before it expires.”

Hofmann is frustrated with Americans’ views about sexuality education. She quotes her mother: “Condoms are like Band-Aids and gardening gloves: they’re just a protective device.” She wishes that every parent and teacher would use this wise analogy.

She has wonderful ideas for HIV/AIDS prevention. She’d like to see HIV-prevention ads run during halftime of the 2011 Super Bowl.

“Why can’t we discuss how football and the leadership idolatry it creates be leveraged to help educate American youth about sexual health?” she asks. “Give us one cool player from each team mentioning the use of ‘safe sex,’ and maybe a cheerleader or two, and that should get the nation’s attention!”

She favors teaching young people decision-making skills in sex ed, so that in the heat of the moment, they will have the skills they need to discuss using condoms or not having sex.

“Courses have to be much more explicit than most presently are, and young people need to practice putting condoms over rubber penises in the classroom. They also need to learn to put them on in the dark,” says Hofmann.

“Sex isn’t just kissing or intercourse; it’s everything in between,” she adds.

For Regan Hofmann – whose story has given her a global vision and global work – preventing HIV is about self-esteem, human rights, and personal dignity. She will spend her life doing everything in her power to removing its stigma and stop the virus from infecting more women and men.

That is what Hofmann has to tell us.

Will we listen?