Published Online: January 17, 2012
Published in Print: January 18, 2012, as New Standards Aim to Guide Sex Education

National Sexuality Standards Would Introduce Subject Early

National standards about sexuality, sexual health, and relationships debuted last week and outline topics students should learn, starting in kindergarten, and that they can build on as they grow older.

The standards—an initiative by groups concerned with student health and sex education—are intended to mimic content standards for other subjects, which introduce concepts early in school, based on children's ability to understand them, and then add to them grade by grade until graduation.

"In every other topic under the sun, you build young people's skills—whether it's math or science," said Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, one of the groups involved. "You don't have to call it 'sex ed' in elementary school."

The groups releasing "National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12" are the American Association for 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.

Guidelines Up Close

National health and education groups have created new standards for sexuality education that they believe are the minimum that students should learn at school, from the early grades through the end of high school. Among those recommendations, the standards say students should be able to:

By the end of 2nd grade:

  • Use proper names for body parts, including male and female anatomy.
  • Explain that all living things reproduce.
  • Describe the characteristics of a friend.
  • Identify healthy ways to express feelings to each other.
  • Demonstrate how to respond if someone is touching them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable.

By the end of 5th grade:

  • Describe male and female reproductive systems, including body parts and their function.
  • Explain the physical, social, and emotional changes that occur during puberty and adolescence.
  • Explain ways to manage the physical and emotional changes associated with puberty.
  • Define sexual orientation as the romantic attraction of an individual to someone of the same gender or a different gender.
  • Describe the characteristics of a healthy relationship.

By the end of 8th grade:

  • Differentiate between gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation;
  • Define sexual intercourse and its relationship to human reproduction.
  • Demonstrate the use of effective communication and negotiation skills about the use of contraception, including abstinence and condoms.
  • Identify medically accurate sources of pregnancy-related information and support, including pregnancy options, safe-surrender policies, and prenatal care.
  • Define sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, and how they are and are not transmitted.

By the end of 12th grade:

  • Define emergency contraception and describe its mechanism of action.
  • Advocate for school policies and programs that promote dignity and respect for all.
  • Apply a decisionmaking model to choices about contraception, including abstinence and condoms.
  • Describe the signs of pregnancy.
  • Assess the skills and resources needed to become a parent.

Coordinating with them in the project was the Future of Sex Education, a partnership of the Washington-based Advocates for Youth; Answer, in Piscataway, N.J.; and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, in New York and Washington. The project was funded by the Ford Foundation, in New York; the George Gund Foundation, based in Cleveland; and the Grove Foundation in Los Altos, Calif.

The authors say the standards are the minimum students should know about sexual and relationship health. By the end of 5th grade, for example, students should be able to explain what bodily changes occur during puberty and adolescence; by 8th grade, they should know what rape, incest, and sexual harassment and abuse are; and by the end of 12th grade, they should be able to define emergency contraception, among dozens of other specifics.

The standards also address contemporary issues of social media, sexting, and bullying.

Critics say some of the topics are simply too much, too young.

"I think they're having a different definition of age-appropriate than what we would have," said Valerie Huber, the executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, in Washington. "If a youngster is able to understand something cognitively, does that make it age-appropriate?"

'Abstinence Only' Debate

The idea for such national standards originated in 2007 with Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS, which hoped federal spending on abstinence-only sex education would be scrapped, and in its place, standards would be needed to guide educators on how to teach sexuality comprehensively.

The Future of Sex Education partners cite research showing that abstinence-based sex education is ineffective in preventing young people from having sex. A 2007 congressionally mandated study found no statistically significant beneficial effect on the sexual behavior of young people participating in abstinence-based programs.

The groups point out that as many as 25 states have rejected federal money, despite the economic downturn, when it requires an abstinence-only approach to teaching about sexuality.

Abstinence-only lessons are still supported by the federal government, however. While federal money for abstinence-only sex education was allowed to expire earlier in President Barack Obama's tenure, some of that funding was revived via the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health-care overhaul.

In addition, the recently enacted federal spending bill for fiscal 2012 includes a small amount of money for another program that promotes an abstinence-until-marriage approach to sex education.

Gathering Support

While there are no national sex education requirements for K-12 public schools, at least five states already have inquired about the new standards, which were reviewed and generally backed by officials from an array of agencies and organizations, including the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education, in Arlington, Va., as well as individuals from several school districts.

"The more kinds of things that are out there like that, it takes away from some of the stigma and 'specialness' about these subjects that shouldn't be there," said Elizabeth Gallun, the supervisor of health education for the Prince George's County, Md., school district. She was one of the reviewers of the standards.

The Future of Sex Education initiative will next tackle a teacher-training program to help better prepare teachers and other personnel who provide sex education.

While her 125,000-student district, just outside Washington, already uses a comprehensive approach to sex education, she said national standards, such as the common core recently developed for mathematics and English/language arts, are invaluable for policymakers everywhere.

Despite the consensus the new standards appear to reflect among health education and school groups, the debate on what to teach students about sex, and when, is far from settled.

Last year, Mississippi—with some of the highest teenage-pregnancy rates in the country—for the first time required districts to teach sex education. Districts must choose from abstinence-only or "abstinence plus" programs, the latter of which includes information about contraceptives and sexually transmitted diseases.

In Texas, districts have been shifting from an abstinence-only approach to abstinence-plus. While just 4 percent of Texas districts had a comprehensive approach to sex education in 2007, that share grew to about 25 percent in 2010, according to a December report in the Houston Chronicle.

The National Sexuality Education Standards takes the opposite approach from that of some sex education classes, which try to scare students away from sex by talking about disease or death, Ms. Hauser of Advocates for Youth said.

"Sexuality is part of who we are as human beings. If you demonize it when you're young, it becomes much harder when you get older," she said.

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In addition, the new curricular guidelines seek to reshape ideas about sex young people are inundated with in movies, in music, and on television

"The whole point is, the world is absolutely seizing sexual languages and messages and images. Do you want the media defining how young people understand these terms or do you want guidance?" said Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of Answer, a program based at Rutgers University that provides and promotes sexuality education to students and educators.

Replacing Hodgepodge

The groups that crafted the standards wanted to provide guidelines that could be used in place of the hodgepodge of sex education lessons schools use now.

Even in states that require sex education, "I don't believe there's any state that has any kind of accountability" about those lessons, Ms. Schroeder said. "You really don't know what's being taught in the classroom."

But Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, in Washington, said decisions about the content of sex education shouldn't be made at the national level.

"The kind of sex ed you get in the inner city in D.C. will be quite different than the children get in rural North Dakota," Mr. Sprigg said. "They're all physically developing the same, but they're not all developing in the same cultural context."

His organization, which opposes abortion, also takes issue with specific parts of the standards, including information about emergency contraception and the message that homosexuality should be accepted.

While the standards do discuss abstinence as a choice, Mr. Sprigg said they don't go far enough in emphasizing it is the only 100-percent-effective way to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

"They speak of abstinence as if it's just another contraceptive item: Use a condom, use a pill, or abstinence, which I felt kind of trivialized it," he said.

Vol. 31, Issue 17, Pages 1,12-13

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