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Ignorance is not power, say new national sex education standards

Ignorance is not power, say new national sex education standards

Austin Photo Set: News_Leila_sex education in schools_march 2012_signs

Texas school districts have long adhered to an “ignorance is power” approach to sex education, but now, four leading national health organizations are hoping to change that.

In January, the American Association of Health Education, the American School Health Association, the National Education Association Health Information Network and the Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, working with the Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative, joined together to release the first-ever national standards in sex education.

The goal of the standards “is to provide clear, consistent and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is developmentally and age-appropriate for students in grades K-12,” according to the report.

 There have been national standards in core subjects and even health education for years, but standards have never been proposed specifically for sex ed.

It’s about time.

The standards include information about seven topics: Anatomy and physiology, puberty and adolescent development, identity, pregnancy and reproduction, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, healthy relationships and personal safety. In other words, it’s not all insert-tab-A-into-slot-B; by the end of eighth grade, for instance, students should be able to “analyze the ways in which friends, family, media, society and culture can influence relationships.”

Important stuff in a nation where over 750,000 teens become pregnant each year.

There have been national standards in core subjects and even health education for years, but standards have never been proposed specifically for sex ed. Many experts believe this is an important first step in making sure kids around the country are getting the education they need.

Let’s be clear: These new standards are not going to revolutionize the way sex education is approached around here. The standards are suggestions, not government mandates, and school districts have no obligation to comply with them. They may, however, provide an important benchmark against which districts can compare their curriculum.

And in Texas, many districts will see huge gaps between the recommendations and their current practices.

Texas is known nationwide both for its let’s-just-pretend-it-doesn’t-exist approach to teen sexuality and its high rates of teen pregnancy, which is probably just a giant coincidence, if Rick Perry is to be believed. This approach stems from 1995 legislation passed when Dubya was governor, stating that Texas districts can teach sex education if they wish, but they must devote equal or greater time to promoting abstinence as to discussing methods of contraception — if contraception is discussed at all.

Districts are also required to teach typical use rates rather than perfect use rates — for example, that condoms are only 81 percent effective rather than 96 percent, since some people who claim they use condoms kinda sorta forget sometimes and — surprise! — get pregnant.

As of 2007, a full 96 percent of Texas districts were still teaching only abstinence-based sex education, according to the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. Many of these programs include medically inaccurate information and have not been tested to confirm that they have an effect on rates of teen pregnancy or STIs.

 Texas is known nationwide both for its let’s-just-pretend-it-doesn’t-exist approach to teen sexuality and its high rates of teen pregnancy, which is probably just a giant coincidence, if Rick Perry is to be believed.

Over the last few years, however, more and more districts are facing the fact that 63 out of 1,000 teenage females in Texas give birth every year, and that no matter how often they push abstinence, it’s not enough. By 2010, 25 percent of districts were using “abstinence-plus” programs, which pair the “abstinence is awesome” message with information about condoms and other forms of birth control.

And those districts are finding that comprehensive sex education not only reduces rates of teen pregnancy, but also results in teens waiting longer to start having sex.

Conservative publication The New American has criticized the standards, saying:

Included in the new standards are the recommendations that second-graders master the ‘proper names for body parts, including male and female anatomy.’ By the fifth grade, students should know that sexual orientation is the ‘romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender.’ Similarly, eighth-graders should know the difference between ‘gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation,’ in a hard-core effort to get them to accept homosexuality and ‘transgender’ behavior as normal sexual expression. At the same time, they should also become familiar with the ‘morning after’ emergency contraception pill (a known abortifacient), as well as learn how to use a condom.”

The fact that the author mistakenly refers to emergency contraception as abortion seems like a great argument for comprehensive sex education. That aside, though, it’s true that the standards recommend teaching students about homosexuality and gender identity in an effort to curtail the sexual bullying that nine out of 10 LGBT students experience, and that inclusion seems like evidence that our nation is moving in a healthier direction regarding sex education.

Hopefully Texas will follow.