Study Finds Fast Growth in Sex Education, But Sentiment for Classes in Lower Grades

By Ellen Flax — May 10, 1989 5 min read

In the most comprehensive assessment to date of how U.S. schools are approaching sex education, researchers have found dramatic growth in the number of required courses but a widespread sentiment among educators that instruction is not beginning soon enough.

The report released last week by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research organization, also shows that most sex-education teachers are broaching such controversial subject areas as birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, homosexuality, and abortion.

But 8 out of 10 of the teachers, it says, feel they need more assistance in teaching such topics. And most cite inadequate support from parents and the community as one of their greatest obstacles.

The report analyzes data contained in three national surveys conducted last year by the institute with funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Brush Foundation, and the New York Times Company Foundation.

The findings confirm the impression of many educators that both the aids crisis and increasing evidence of early sexual activity among adolescents have spurred the adoption of sex-education curricula by states and school districts during the past three years.

Many of these curricula have tried to incorporate community values by seeking the counsel of parents and community leaders.

The report’s finding that most sex-education instructors teach not only about birth control but also about sexual abstinence is one indication of this trend.

The institute estimates that 60 percent of all adolescents now take a sex-education class before they graduate from high school.

“It is encouraging that teachers are covering the topics that we feel and they feel need to be covered,” said Patricia Donovan, an associate for law and public policy at the institute. “They are covering the topics, but they don’t have enough time to go into them in great detail.”

In the three national surveys conducted in the spring of 1988, more than 4,200 sex-education teachers were asked about what they taught in class, how they were prepared to teach the subject, and what they considered their greatest obstacles.

In addition, all state education agencies and 162 school districts were also asked to outline their sex- and aids-education curricula.

According to the data, 17 states and the District of Columbia require sex education, an increase of 14 states since 1980. An additional 23 states have adopted guidelines that encourage such instruction, and only 10 states have taken no action on the issue.

Aids education, which is required by 30 states and the District of Columbia, has frequently been stressed at the expense of traditional sex education, the researchers found.

“Many state education agencies have not used the widespread national concern about aids as an opportunity to update older sex-education curricula and to integrate the two topics, which are often taught separately,” concludes the Guttmacher report, which synthesizes the results of two separate academic studies based on the surveys.

These studies are published in the current issue of Family Planning Perspectives, the institute’s journal.

The curricula of large districts tend to be more comprehensive and are more likely to tackle sensitive topics than state-written sex-education guidelines, the researchers found.

The survey data indicate that most sex-education instructors believe many topics should be covered at earlier grade levels.

For example, although about 75 percent of the teachers questioned said information about abstinence and sexually transmitted diseases should be taught by the end of the 7th grade, less than 40 percent worked in schools where these topics were included in the 7th-grade syllabus.

A majority of the teachers also said that information about birth control and homosexuality should be pre8sented by the 7th grade. One-third of the 7th-grade syllabi included lessons on contraceptives and about one-quarter discussed homosexuality.

Lesson plans become bolder, the survey showed, as teenagers mature. By the 10th grade, more than 9 out of 10 teachers questioned said they included information about both abstinence and birth-control methods in their lessons, and most said they discussed abortion and homosexuality.

One-fourth of the teachers who said they covered birth control, however, said they discussed it only in response to students’ questions.

Teachers most frequently cited a lack of parental and community support, as well as a lack of good teaching materials, as their biggest obstacles.

More than a quarter said they felt their teaching efforts were not supported by parents and other community members, and approximately a third said school administrators were nervous about possible adverse community reaction to their curriculum.

Nearly half of the teachers, however, said they felt they were supported by parents and the community.

Among its recommendations, the institute urged a greater role for parents and community groups in helping develop sex-education curricula.

Tari Marshall, a spokesman for the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, said her group has long backed sex-education beginning at the grade-school level, and has stressed the need for each comel15lmunity to determine what appropristruction should be.

She added that the organization “has not said one way or the other if you should be teaching about birth control.”

Also among the institute’s recommendations was a suggestion that states set certification and training standards for teachers in the field and encourage colleges and universities to incorporate sex-education courses into their basic preparatory programs for teachers in relevant disciplines.

The survey findings showed, the report says, that “some teachers have significant gaps in their own knowledge about some topics and4thus at times may be disseminating inaccurate or incomplete information to their students.”

Many teachers, for example, had misconceptions about oral contraceptives, and answered several factual questions about their use incorrectly.

Ms. Donovan, who called these results “very disturbing,” said states should be placing a greater emphasis on developing better instructional materials to make up for such gaps.

Copies of the report are available from The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 111 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y., 10003; telephone: (212) 254-5656. Rates range from $3 each for orders of from one to four copies, to 75 cents for orders of more than 100.

A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 1989 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Fast Growth in Sex Education, But Sentiment for Classes in Lower Grades