Published Online: May 6, 2014
Published in Print: May 7, 2014, as New Teacher-Preparation Standards Target Sex Education

New Teacher-Preparation Standards Focus on Sex Education

Teachers often lack training, experts say

A group that has advocated more-comprehensive sex education at earlier ages recently proposed teacher-preparation standards that it says specifically address the unique challenges associated with teaching the subject.

Sex education in public middle and high schools is frequently taught by health teachers who often have had little or no training on human sexuality or on the legal, ethical, and classroom-management concerns associated with discussing sex with teens in a classroom setting, the group says.

The Future of Sex Education Initiative—a coalition of health and teacher-preparation groups that previously proposed national sex education content standards—proposed seven preparation standards for sex education teachers that will be published in the June issue of the Journal of School Health.

"You have teachers walking into a classroom who are uncomfortable or don't feel very capable" teaching sex education, said Debra Hauser, the executive director for the Washington-based group Advocates for Youth. "Unfortunately, that sends a message almost as strong as giving the wrong information."

Advocates for Youth spearheads the Future of Sex Education Initiative along with Answer, a national advocacy and information group in Piscataway, N.J., and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS, with offices in New York and Washington.

The proposed teacher-preparation standards include discussions of a teacher's awareness of his or her own biases about sexuality; knowledge about biological, emotional, and legal aspects of sexuality; guidelines for classroom discussion of sensitive subjects; and how a teacher should address student reports of issues like abuse or pregnancy.

Collaborative Effort

The organization developed the new standards in coordination with practitioners and reviewers from state health and education departments, public health organizations, and professional associations.

Sex education lessons at the secondary level are most frequently taught by general health teachers or by physical education teachers. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Education found that only 61 percent of colleges and universities require sex education courses for health education certification, and nearly a third of sex education teachers reported no preservice or in-service training in the subject.

Among the institutions that do require sexuality coursework for a health education certificate, many require only a general survey course focusing on the content and not on issues related to teaching it, creators of the proposed preparation standards said. As a result, there's a demand for professional development to catch teachers up after they've already entered the classroom, said Nora Gelperin, Answer's training director.

Common questions that Answer addresses in professional development include whether teachers must notify a student's parents if she discloses that she is pregnant, how to explain consent laws to students, and how to teach materials on subjects like masturbation that may make teachers uncomfortable or differ from their personal views on sexuality, Ms. Gelperin said.

"They say, 'Can I answer this question if a student asks it? Am I even allowed to say this word?' " she said.

Differing Approaches

The Future of Sex Education Initiative previously proposed national content standards for sex education courses. Those standards say that by the end of 5th grade, for example, students should be able to explain what bodily changes occur during puberty and adolescence; and by the end of 12th grade, they should be able to define emergency contraception.

While those standards have not been adopted universally, they have sparked changes in a handful of states and districts, the coalition said.

Last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that said 83 percent of teenagers did not receive sex education before they first had sex. And while the teen birthrate is falling, the use of evidence-based educational materials, access to and knowledge about contraceptives, and encouragement from adults to delay sexual activity could drive the numbers down even further, the report says.

Only 22 states and the District of Columbia require that public schools teach sex education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and only 19 states require that "if provided, sex education must be medically, factually, or technically accurate." Some states, like Mississippi, ban demonstration of contraceptives and discussion of abortion and require sex to be discussed from a perspective that emphasizes abstinence and heterosexuality.

Negotiating Minefields

Supporters say the proposed preparation standards can benefit teachers, regardless of their district's approach to teaching about sex. Beyond content requirements, the standards include information on how to honor local requirements while still providing accurate information.

One example in the standards focuses on a hypothetical health teacher planning a lesson about prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in a state where "state law says that if any sexual health topics beyond HIV are taught, the school must 'stress abstinence.' "

Teachers would demonstrate competency in the preparation standard for planning if they knew how to consult the law, school policies, and supervisors to confirm that they could still "teach about the health benefits of condoms even while emphasizing the benefits of postponing sexual activity," the example says.

Related Blog

The standards' authors will next provide grants to universities to evaluate and retool their coursework for health teachers as they see fit, Ms. Hauser said.

Irene Cucina, the director of teacher preparation for Plymouth State University in Plymouth, N.H., helps review health-teacher-preparation standards for the Reston, Va.-based Society of Health and Physical Educators. Review committees will likely discuss the proposed standards when they update preparation requirements for health teachers in the fall, she said.

Vol. 33, Issue 30, Page 14

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