While the Republican presidential candidates chased each other through the primaries and President Obama embarked on the campaign trail, a recent announcement about sexuality education in America quietly made history.
For the first time ever, educators, local and state board members, and parents have a set of uniform, national sexuality education standards to measure the content of their schools’ programs: The National Sexuality Education Standards. Its goal is “to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K-12.”
Publication of the standards is an important step forward in standardizing, normalizing and improving sex education throughout the nation. If widely implemented, our youths’ well-being, health and academic achievement will improve. Programs modeled after the standards could lower our high rate of teen pregnancy and even higher rate of teen sexual transmitted diseases. Emphasis, of course, is on the “if.” If professional educators, parents and school board members give these standards a fair hearing.
Development of the standards is the result of a two-year effort spearheaded by five prestigious organizations: The American Association of Health Education, The American School Health Association, The National Education Association Health Information Network, The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education and The Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative. (FoSE includes three national sexuality education organizations: Advocates for Youth, Answer and SIECUS.)
These experts believe that “sexual development… [is] a normal, natural, healthy part of human development.” They substitute abstinence-only approaches, which still receive government funding, for a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach.
The standards join a growing body of national standards for other school curricula, such as math, reading and health, which only benefit our national education system. Long after serving on the New Jersey State Board of Education decades ago, I believed that excessive local control of school curricula-particularly sex education- can prevent young people from getting challenging content that prepares them to live in the global village. When it comes to sex education, a small group of parents at the local level can often control the curriculum to a point where students get only limited, often dishonest information.
The standards are based on research-driven evidence and developmentally and age-appropriate norms, yet teaching more than abstinence might be seen as controversial. Some parents, educators and politicians believe that school sexuality education programs should focus only on abstinence and that instruction on contraception can encourage young people to have sex.
However, the experts behind the standards think otherwise. They believe that students in the early grades should learn only about abstinence, but those in grades 6-8 should also learn about the “health benefits, risks and effectiveness rates of various methods of contraception, including… condoms.” By the end of high school, students will review, compare and contrast the advantages and disadvantages of abstinence and other methods, including condoms.
This is balanced instruction, since about half of all teens today have sex before graduating high school. Students need the whole story about contraception, not just half of it.
Another potentially controversial area might be the treatment of sexual orientation, which is wisely placed in the area of Identity. Instruction begins in grades 3-5, and by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to define “sexual orientation as the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same or of a different gender.” Many young people already know this definition, since they live with same-sex parents, or know others who have been raised by them.
The topic continues in grades 6-8, so that students “differentiate between gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.” Then in high school, instruction focuses on students’ ability to “differentiate between biological sex, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.”
I can see how the possible inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity might cause differences of opinion among parents and educators-but it shouldn’t hold up adoption of the standards. They need not be swallowed whole. Rather, parents and school board members-and older students whose opinions might be extremely valuable-can examine them in a series of community meetings.
Implementation can begin with elements that the majority accepts. The more difficult and potentially controversial issues can be placed on the sidelines for further study and adopted at a later date.
Elimination of certain topics, of course, can be more problematic if a state board of education decided to adopt the standards for all its schools. However, boards not wanting implementation to cause conflicts might suggest that parents can opt out of instruction for a few of the standards that might conflict with their religious or moral views.
But we’re discussing building a floor for sex education with the adoption of these minimal standards. We’re not discussing the ceiling, and there is no time limit imposed on districts to begin adopting the standards. Of course, it won’t take long for many school districts with superior sexuality education programs to do a quick review to see how their programs surpass the standards. Perhaps districts with excellent programs can serve as mentors to districts that must start at the very beginning and adopt the minimal standards.
In the 30 years that I’ve worked in the sexuality education field, nothing as dramatic and important as the creation of the standards has ever occurred. They have the potential to improve and enhance school sexuality education programs across the country. Bravo to everyone involved in their development, and good luck to the parents, educators, and state and local school board members who must now summon their courage and implement them.