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Archive for October, 2011

Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed

October 19, 2011

An op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Does Sex Ed Undermine Parental Rights?” by Robert George and Melissa Moschella, is not as much about sexuality education as it is an overt example of how deeply the socially-conservative agenda is pervading all aspects of our culture.

This is no accident; it is an intentional, widespread campaign against not only sexual and reproductive health, sexuality education, women’s rights, and the inclusion of LGBTQ youth in anti-bullying measures, but also against the rights of young people to dare to want to access information that will make them educated consumers of the world in which they live.

This campaign started gaining momentum with the Tea Party (you know, the folks who applauded “Let’s hear it for letting someone who doesn’t have health insurance die!”), formerly considered to be more on the fringe, but who are now, inexplicably and horrifyingly, gaining legitimacy.

I’d like to highlight several core elements of social conservative propaganda-some of which appear throughout the piece-that continue to be used to manipulate people into thinking there is a concerted effort being made by educators to contribute, as the authors claim, to “the sexualization of children in our society at younger ages:”

1. Lie blatantly. If history has taught us anything, it’s that social conservatives believe that the end justifies the means. In their view, it is completely appropriate to lie to young people. This is what ignited the years-long battle sexuality education experts have fought to ensure that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula be, at the very least, medically accurate.  These curricula lie to young people in order to scare and shame them out of having sex (even though research has shown that doing so is woefully ineffective). If in the end, a young person doesn’t have sex, social conservatives claim victory despite the fact that these young people may not have any self-esteem to speak of or know how to practice safer sex in the future.

2. Use fear. Sex ed wasn’t always such a controversial topic to teach, but social conservatives have turned the provision of school-based sexuality education into an adversarial “us against them” debate. They work to terrify parents out of trusting trained educators to provide children with the information they need to make healthy decisions, now and in the future.

In the Times Op-Ed, George and Moschella ask readers to imagine how they would feel if their child had just entered middle school and were provided with sex ed in which he [sic] was “…encouraged to disregard what you told him about sex, and to rely instead on teachers and health clinic staff members?”

Here they are trying to scare parents into believing that these terrible, awful, amoral educators are trying to undermine your parental authority. The lie inherent in this (see point #1) is that educators are telling young people to ignore what their parents have to say about sexuality.

In fact, the cardinal rule for anyone teaching sex ed to young people is to always encourage them to talk with their parents, caregivers, or other trusted adults in their lives, and to press those adults to do the same, within the context of their own family’s values.

3. Treat young people as idiots. If we do that, then we will be guaranteed to have the “sovereignty” over them that George and Moschella espouse.  For those of us who work with and on behalf of young people, the disenfranchisement of youth that is embraced by social conservatives is particularly infuriating.  The thought is that if young people are ignorant, they will remain dependent upon their parents-and this is as counterproductive for the young person as it is for the parent.

If we do not see young people as inherently smart and strong with great capacity for learning and doing things independently of us, we are not infusing the positive self-esteem and strength they need to be independent beings in the world. Social conservatives think of young people as incapable and needing constant adult supervision and support, and then expect them to be able to navigate the world effectively as adults. This is as ridiculous as teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage and assuming that as soon as people are in a heterosexual marriage that they will miraculously be infused with the full range of knowledge and skills they need to have happy, healthy relationships.  All of this sets young people up for failure from the earliest ages.

As a former college professor, I saw this firsthand when parents would call me to try to get  their child into an already-full class or discuss their child’s grades. I wondered whether these same parents would accompany their adult children to job interviews, help them ask someone out on a date, or be there to negotiate safer sex with a future partner.

Parents have to teach their children how to think for themselves. We are not our children’s friends, we are their parents.  And from the moment we become parents, our job is to help our children eventually become independent from us.

When it comes to sexuality, an oft-quoted phrase that comes from SIECUS is that parents are the primary and most important sexuality educators of their children. But the reality is that far too many parents are simply not equipped to teach their children age- and developmentally-appropriate information about sexuality - any more than they are equipped to teach trigonometry even if they were math whizzes in high school. Giving birth or adopting a child does not automatically make us experts in all of the topics and skills young people need to know to be prepared to navigate the world as adults.  This is why we need to rely on educational, medical, and other professional experts-and, if we are a member of a faith community, our faith leaders-to help us.

Educating young people about sexuality should be seen as a partnership between entities that share the common goal of having them grow into sexually healthy adults, not as a faux struggle between parents and schools.  Yet because of (and only because of) the hyperbolic rhetoric spewed by those like George and Moschella, sex ed continues to be seen as a battle.

This is as counterproductive as it is unhelpful. Young people deserve better, educational professionals deserve better, and parents deserve better.  I call upon us all to reject the rhetoric and focus on helping young people learn the content and skills they need in order to have happy, productive, rich lives.

“Spewing Misinformation and Ideology, A New York Times Op-Ed Spreads Unfounded Fears About Sex Ed” was originally published by RH Reality Check.

It Takes More Than a Month: Incorporating LGBTQ Issues Into Sex Ed

October 11, 2011

LGBTQ lockersThe first observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) history month was seven years ago. (We add the “Q” to LGBT to include those who identify as “queer.”) October was chosen for two reasons: To commemorate the first-ever march on Washington, DC by LGBTQ individuals back in 1979 and because it includes National Coming Out Day on October 11th, which started in 1988.

LGBT History Month is more than an observance of the contributions of LGBTQ individuals throughout history; it is a call to action for those who teach sexuality education to review their curricula, materials and resources to see how inclusive they are of LGBTQ individuals and issues. And it is a call to action for state-level policymakers to look at their state’s sexuality education mandate—if they have one—to ensure that the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity are specifically required. According to The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, fewer than half of states address sexual orientation as part of sexuality education. Some that do, like South Carolina, prohibit any discussion of homosexuality unless it is done within the context of HIV and AIDS. Others, like Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina and Oklahoma, require treating homosexuality as abnormal or dangerous.

When I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I reviewed a state with a strong sex ed mandate (on paper at least), New Jersey. New Jersey’s core curriculum content standards require that by eighth grade students will “discuss topics regarding sexual orientation” and by 12th grade, “investigate current and emerging topics related to sexual orientation.” My dissertation examined whether and how that was being done. I was stunned to find many schools were not teaching sexuality education at all, regardless of the mandate. I was less stunned, but equally disappointed, to discover that in schools that were teaching sex ed, many were excluding the topic of sexual orientation.

If people are so resistant to teaching about sexual orientation, then why teach about it? There are countless reasons. Some of the most compelling of which come from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), who found that in US schools during a given year

  • 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed,
  • 40% are physically harassed,
  • 19% are physically assaulted because of their real—or perceived—sexual orientation,
  • 64% are verbally harassed because of how they express their gender,
  • 72% hear homophobic remarks like “faggot” or “dyke” frequently throughout the school day,
  • Nearly two-thirds of students feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation,
  • More than a third because of their gender identity, and
  • 29% missed class at least once because of safety concerns.

What about teachers and parents? The support is there. In a national study, 78 percent of high school teachers and 75 percent of parents said they thought that sexual orientation should be included in sexuality education programs and that it should be “discussed in a way that provides a fair and balanced presentation of the facts and different views in society.” Adults support schools being more inclusive; LGBT students need them to be. Here are a few quick suggestions on how to make this happen:

  • Have more than “gay day.” Young people often refer to the one day on which sexual orientation is addressed at school as “gay day” because it is discussed that day, then completely ignored for the rest of the year. LGBTQ issues should be integrated throughout the school year, across the curriculum.
  • Be clear about LGB vs. T. Far too often, we refer to LGBTQ issues, but the T—being transgender—is often left out altogether. Being transgender isn’t about sexual orientation; it’s about gender identity. If we use “LGBTQ,” we need to address lesbian and gay people AND bisexual people AND transgender people.
  • When teaching about relationship issues, include same-sex relationships. For example, in an activity in which students evaluate what makes a relationship healthy, make sure that at least one of the couples is a same-sex couple.
  • Remember the achievements as well as the challenges. We are all aware of the devastating statistics relating to rates of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide by LGBT youth. But if that is all we present to young people, we are giving a very negative view of LGBT people and are communicating to those who may be LGBTQ themselves that their futures are quite bleak. Stories of courage and success must be told alongside the stories of challenges and prejudice.
  • Remember the diversity within the diversity. There is a pervasive stereotype nationwide among young people and educators of color that only white people are LGBTQ. This is perpetuated in no small part by the media and serves to further isolate and disenfranchise LGBTQ youth of color. It is important for educators to acknowledge clearly that an LGBTQ person can be of any race or ethnicity, any education or socioeconomic level, and from any geographic location.
  • There are LGBTQ youth in every school. It is imperative to remember that, statistically speaking, there will be LGBTQ students, or students with LGBTQ parents and/or other family members, in every school—and to teach accordingly.

Sexuality education is not for and about some people; it is for and about all people. If LGBTQ issues are not included within a school’s sex ed curriculum, they need to be—and not just during LGBT History Month, but all year round.

If you’re looking for more training on LGBTQ issues, add your name to our e-mail list to get more information about our upcoming online professional development workshop, “LGBTQ Issues in Schools.”

Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together

October 7, 2011

Multiple choice testThe first standardized health and sexuality education test for students in the public and charter schools in Washington, D.C., has become a reality-and I am thrilled. A journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with a single step. I applaud the District of Columbia for taking the first step in the nation to assess what students know-and don’t know- about sexuality topics like contraception and health topics like nutrition, mental health and drug use.

This spring, students in grades 5, 8 and 10 in a district with 75,000 students will be tested for their knowledge on these and similar health-related topics.

This announcement comes almost exactly two years to the date since I wrote a column promoting the idea of a national health education test. In that column, I called for funds to create a standardized national health education test covering a wide range of health-related topics. High school students would be required to pass it in order to graduate.

Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that Harvard require passage of the test as part of the admissions process: If the mother-of-all universities had such a requirement, then other universities would probably follow!

Such a test would be a win-win for kids and adults: It would get health education out of the periphery of the school curriculum, where it languishes, and give it the important role that it needs to promote lifelong wellness. What’s more, school board members, administrators, teachers, parents and teens would take health education more seriously if it were a subject students would be tested on. And although certainly not a magic bullet, good information conveyed by good instruction is fundamental to behavior change. Finally, test results might prod school districts to improve woefully deficient health and sexuality education programs.

I hadn’t thought much about my idea until a colleague forwarded this Washington Post article. The headline immediately caught my attention: “D.C. schools prepare for the nation’s first sex-education standardized testing.” Well, I thought, it’s not a national test, but maybe the way to get there is state by state by state.

The health and sex ed questions will be multiple choice and skills based rather than only soliciting correct information. For example, if there is a question about condoms, students at the 10th grade level most likely would be asked to make or check a list of the correct steps from purchasing a package of condoms to using one.

For my original piece, I spoke to Nancy Hudson, a senior associate at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in Washington, D. C. Hudson works for the Health Education Assessment Project (HEAP) whose mission is “to develop effective standards-based health education resources to improve health literacy through improved instruction.”

“We have over 1,900 assessment items to work with in constructing a test, and they are free to any state asking to use them. The D. C. sex ed assessments uses many of these 1,900 items which were tested for validity and reliability that are two essentials in school testing,” explains Hudson.

Obviously, there are many ways to skin the sex-education standardized test cat at the state level, and the D.C. schools have focused on one way: inserting questions in the general assessment tests of other subjects, such as reading and math, which are administered for a two-week period in the spring.

Adam Tenner, executive director of Metro TeenAIDS, a community health education nonprofit that works to promote sexuality and HIV education in the D.C. public schools [link to: http://metroteenaids.org/], was one of the driving forces behind the development of the tests.

Tenner told me that he enthusiastically approves of the new test, agreeing that in education “what gets measured gets done.” He said that he and others in the city who advocated for inserting the questions in the assessments argued that “healthy kids learn better, healthy kids stay in school and don’t drop out, and healthy kids complete more grades in school and college so they can get better jobs.”

It bothers Tenner that the media and opponents have already labeled the new assessment “the sex test.” He said that opponents argue that “if kids can’t learn to read, why should they learn about sex.” I suggested a retort that I often used to stop this argument in its tracks: “Use age-appropriate materials about sexual issues with kids, and they might improve their reading.” He liked it.

Now that D.C. has taken the all-important first step, perhaps New Jersey will step up and become the second state to consider using a statewide standardized sexuality education test. The cost of preparing the tests for New Jersey-which Tom Ewing, the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS’s) director of external relations, estimated at $250,000 two years ago when I spoke to him-would now be greatly reduced if we were to use the test items from D.C.

Local schools boards in the strapped cities might mention the expense of adapting and giving the test as reasons for not doing it. Therefore, it might be better to have the State Board of Education interested in the issue and work with the Commissioner and possibly the Commissioner of Health to find monies to pay for a statewide assessment.

I’ve been warned that joining sexuality education with standardized testing is a toxic brew that will incur the wrath of people opposed to both ideas. But we’ll never know what a good idea this might be unless we give it a try.

Teaching to the test on this subject makes good sense.

Ewing of ETS told me it would take about 18 months to develop a statewide test. In the meantime, let’s promote some new words to a familiar old adage: “Sex Education and Standardized Testing: Perfect Together.”

Soon.