Sex, Tests, And Parental Roles

August 01, 2000 6 min read
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TEACHING SEX: The Shaping of Adolescence in the 20th Century, by Jeffrey P. Moran. (Harvard, $27.95.) Although it takes many forms and serves many purposes nowadays, sex education had one principal goal when first introduced into the curriculum in the early 1900s—to inform kids of the supposed scientific link between sexual immorality and disease. As Moran, an assistant professor of history at the University of Kansas, describes it, doctors would visit schools and warn students that casual sex would almost certainly lead to syphilis or gonorrhea, their scabrous descriptions sometimes inducing fainting.

While scare tactics would continue to have a place in sex education, this doomsday phase did not last long, mainly because parents and school boards objected to any discussion of sexuality, even when intended to promote chastity. Still, sex education, Moran tells us, did not go away; it simply went “underground,” taught almost unnoticed in biology classes with the birds and the bees.

Sex education entered a more active phase in the late ‘40s. Several key factors contributed to the shift, among them the introduction of penicillin, which transformed VD into a mere inconvenience, and the widely publicized Kinsey studies, which demonstrated that men and women were more sexually adventuresome than previously thought. Sex educators, then called “family life educators,” acknowledged, for the first time, that a healthy sex life was actually good—even necessary—within the context of marriage. Of course, sex before marriage was still considered crippling; teens were told it would render them incapable of later conjugal satisfaction.

As we know, the ‘80s and ‘90s were a period of Sturm und Drang for sex education. With AIDS sweeping the country, the question of what and how to teach about sex polarized the education community. Liberals emphasized the need to give kids information—about sexual behavior, contraception, disease, and the like. Since teenagers were going to have sex anyway, they might as well learn to do it safely. Conservatives, on the other hand, believed that sex education should preach strict abstinence outside of marriage. Courses that included detailed information about sex and contraception, they argued, only encouraged kids to become sexually active.

Moran sees both approaches as seriously flawed. He doesn’t buy the conservatives’ argument that teaching kids about contraception causes promiscuity. Nor does he believe that frank talk about sex has done much to lower teenage pregnancy rates. Indeed, Moran points out that numerous studies show sex education to be basically inefficacious. “An understanding of sex education’s practical ineffectiveness has been a long time coming,” he writes.

The problem, Moran argues, is that sex education, in its myriad forms, has always placed too much trust in the ability of students to make good decisions when armed with the “right” information. The motto of sex educators, Moran notes, has always been, “If you teach it, they will learn.”

But as this captivating book makes clear, information alone is unlikely to change young peoples’ beliefs and behavior, especially when it comes to something as central to human nature as sex.

WILL STANDARDS SAVE PUBLIC EDUCATION?by Deborah Meier. (Beacon, $12.) Those who know Meier, legendary founder of the progressive Central Park East schools in Harlem, will hardly be surprised to learn that her answer to the titular question is a resounding, “No.” She believes, among other things, that state education standards rob teachers of autonomy and turn them, as she puts it, into “local instruments of externally imposed expert judgment.” Meier is not against standards per se; she simply believes they should be established by individual school communities. The benefits, she argues, would include giving young people the opportunity to observe adults “exercising judgment in the face of disagreement.”

Although named as the sole author, Meier is just one of several contributors to this slim volume of essays. While some, like progressive reformer Ted Sizer, clearly side with Meier, several prominent defenders of the standards movement take issue with her views. Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative scholar and a member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, sees no benefit in setting standards locally. Because standards would vary from school to school, education inequities would persist, she argues. Besides, when it comes to standards, “should we trust everyone in every school, including the children themselves?” she asks. Historian and standards- setter Gary Nash scoffs at the idea that effective standards might be drafted under the watchful eye of local school boards, which, he notes, have a long history of being “vicious and retrograde.” Good state standards, he believes, can foster improved learning without depriving teachers of autonomy.

So just who is right in this tortured debate? If all educators were as skilled and persistent as Meier, the case would be closed—yes, let a thousand flowers bloom. But, in fact, few teachers have the time or the stomach to tackle standards-setting. Still, even the very best want flexible, well-constructed standards to guide their classroom practices. Sadly, that’s not what the states are delivering. Many of the new standards documents are far too prescriptive, laying out, as Meier feared they would, a detailed road map that teachers must follow if they want their students to pass muster.

Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education,by William W. Cutler III. (Chicago, $25.) It’s hardly a secret that the relationship between teachers and parents has been strained in recent years. While in some communities the two seem to be on the same team, in many districts they’re at loggerheads, each blaming the other for school shortcomings. Certainly teachers feel criticized—besieged, even. But as Cutler, an education and history professor at Temple University, points out in this intriguing account, it hasn’t always been that way.

There was once a time when teachers had the upper hand.

As the nation’s public school system expanded in the early 1900s, educators were conscious of the need to transform parents “from vocal adversaries into local advocates,” Cutler writes. They accomplished this with the help of home-school organizations and, later, local chapters of the PTA. Over time, educators working through these friendly associations convinced parents that they had to send their children to school in “a teachable condition.” As Cutler notes, this led to a kind of double standard on the part of educators: It allowed schools to take credit when students did well and to blame “bad parents” when students fell short.

Confidence in the public schools began to crumble in the ‘60s, undermined by teacher strikes, the plight of poor children, and a loss of faith in public institutions. By the ‘90s, many parents viewed educators with a critical eye, if not outright disdain. Some didn’t think twice about showing up at school to ream out a teacher or demand a change in curriculum.

While Cutler insightfully details the disintegration of the parent-teacher relationship, he unfortunately fails to offer a way to mend the rift. He merely suggests that we need to begin the healing process by acknowledging that “families and schools are farther apart than ever before.”

—David Ruenzel


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