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Core Subject Status for Health Education Sought

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Washington

Bowing to the adage "less is more," the sponsors of national health-education standards unveiled their compact product last week while urging national, state, and local leaders to add health to the list of core subjects.

"These standards are things young people must know and be able to do if they are to grow into healthy, productive, successful adult citizens," said John R. Seffrin, the executive vice president of the American Cancer Society, which paid for the development of the standards.

"We've done a great job using aggressive standards to teach our kids subjects like math and science," said Dr. P. John Seward, the chairman of the American Medical Association. "Now it's time to be just as aggressive in teaching our kids how to be healthy."

The voluntary health-education standards, released at a news conference here, came out in the wake of evidence showing that the health of American adolescents is deteriorating.

Few Specifics

"We presently have a generation of adolescents that is heavier, less physically active, and that is smoking more than its parents were at the same age," said Dr. Charles H. Hennekens, the chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Moreover, the leading causes of death among America's youths are often preventable--automobile accidents, suicide, and homicide, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To reverse the backslide, said Dr. Hennekens, "quality school health education is critical."

The standards have changed very little, if at all, from the draft circulated last fall, although they are now organized by standard and by grade. (See Education Week, 10/19/94.)

They also have been repackaged with so-called opportunity-to-learn standards, recommendations and conclusions, and a discussion of the time schools should devote to health education.

Assessments to accompany the standards are being drafted separately by the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The opportunity-to-learn standards call for states to establish health education as a core academic subject and for the federal government to include it in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act.

Even with all of these additions, however, the document totals only 80 pages--modest by the standards of national-standards projects. In fact, they barely resemble the other national academic standards that have been released or are being drawn up. The geography standards, for example, run to 272 pages.

The heart of the health-education document--the seven standards themselves--is but seven pages in length and emphasizes the teaching of thinking skills rather than content.

As a result, the standards contain no specific references to such topics as drug and alcohol abuse, teenage pregnancy, and aids.

Instead, for example, Standard 3 requires students to "demonstrate the ability to practice health-enhancing behaviors and reduce health risks."

One performance indicator under that standard for students in grades 5 to 8 is to "distinguish between safe and risky or harmful behaviors in relationships."

The document also includes a single-page chart crowded with sample topics that could be used to draft curricula to meet the standards for grades 4, 8, and 11.

Developers of the standards said they opted against including specific topics in the standards because they wanted to leave curriculum decisions to local districts.

In addition to the American Cancer Society, the standards were developed by the Association for the Advancement of Health Education, the American Public Health Association, the American School Health Association, and the Society of State Directors of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.

Mixed Reviews

While some health-advocacy organizations expressed disappointment with the lack of specificity, others approved of the broader approach.

"That kind of vague language doesn't really address burning issues," said Robin Hatziyannis, the director of communications for Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based group that deals with reproductive health and sexuality.

Which burning issues? "Disease prevention--H.I.V. is certain death," said Ms. Hatziyannis, referring to the virus that causes AIDS. "I would think we might want to mention it by name," she said.

Trish Torruella, the vice president for education of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York City, praised the emphasis on critical thinking and decisionmaking skills. "So often," she said, "we get very caught up in [conveying] pieces of knowledge: Do we tell people about homosexuality or drugs rather than do we help them become critical thinkers."

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