New National Standards Address Sexuality Education for All Grades

By Nirvi Shah — January 09, 2012 2 min read
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A new set of standards outlines the minimum that students should learn about their sexuality from their earliest years in school until they leave high school.

The standards, developed over the last few years by dozens of health and education experts, say that by the end of 2nd grade, students should be able to use the proper name for body parts, including male and female anatomy. By the end of 5th grade, they should be able to define sexual abuse and harassment. By the end of high school, they should be able to describe common symptoms of and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, according to the standards released today with the backing of four national health education groups.

Three groups—Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States—led creation of the standards. At the time the project was conceived, the hope was that federal spending on abstinence-only sexual education would eventually be extinguished (which isn’t yet the case ) and something would be needed to teach sexuality, comprehensively. Still, despite the federal government’s continued support for abstinence-only sex education programs in schools, a growing number of states are opting to go beyond abstinence-only and take a more-comprehensive approach to sex education in public schools. For example, many Texas schools have shifted away from an abstinence-only approach.

A 2007 congressionally mandated study found no statistically significant beneficial effect on the sexual behavior of young people participating in abstinence-based programs.

Supporters of the standards note, however, that the new standards don’t recommend teaching about hot-button issues such as contraception in the early grades.

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

But elementary school students could learn about what it means to be a good friend, understand why bullying is wrong, and what good touches and bad touches are.

“That translates later when you’re talking about relationships,” Ms. Hauser said.

The standards also address social media, sexting, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy, as well as a range of other topics, including bullying. The hope is that states, districts, and even individual schools will adopt the standards, or build their own curricula based upon them.

Sexuality education in the public schools is a perennial source of controversy. It’s not clear yet how parents and the public will respond to these new standards. For more on that—and on the details of the standards themselves—watch for my story next week in Education Week.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.