Who teaches sex ed in your school? In middle and high schools, it’s a safe bet to say it’s probably the same person who teaches health classes. And chances are also good those teachers weren’t required to take a sex education course in college as part of their certification to teach health.
While many teacher preparation programs offer such classes, many of them don’t require them, a coalition of sex education groups say. And that lack of consistent training combined with a patchwork of state and district policies can leave teachers ill-prepared for the unique challenges they may face when teaching students about sex and sexuality, the groups say.
To remedy that situation, the groups—which call their effort the Future of Sex Education Initiative— have proposed national teacher preparation standards for sex education.
The standards, which will be published in the June issue of the Journal of School Health, fall into seven subject areas. The proposed standards include discussions of a teacher’s awareness of his or her own biases about sex and sexuality; content knowledge about biological, emotional, and legal aspects of sexuality; how to set guidelines for classroom discussion of sensitive subjects; and how a teacher should address student reports of issues like abuse or pregnancy.
The Future of Sex Education Initiative is the same group that has proposed national standards for sex education courses. While those standards have not been adopted universally, they have sparked changes in state law in several states, the coalition said. 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; 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 Future of Sex Education Initiative includes Advocates for Youth, Answer, and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS. They developed the teacher preparation standards in coordination with a group of practicitioners and reviewers from state health and education departments, public health organizations, and professional associations.
National standards, sex education, and teacher preparation are three areas of education policy that never generate any controversy (I hope you can feel my sarcasm as you read this). But the standards’ authors say the stakes are high in this area. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that said 83 percent of teens did not receive adequate sex education before they first had sex. And while the teen birth rate is falling, the use of evidence-based educational materials, access to and knowledge about contraceptives, and encouragement from adults to delay sexual activity could help drive numbers down even further, the report said.
But how will national teacher preparation standards work in a subject area that is addressed so differently depending on state and locality? 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 that sex is discussed from a perspective that emphasizes abstinence and heterosexuality.
Well, beyond pure content requirements, the teacher preparation standards also information on how to honor local requirements while still providing accurate information. Here’s an included example under standard five, which relates to lesson planning:
A health teacher is planning lessons to address prevention of STDs and unintended pregnancy. Her state law says that if any sexual health topics beyond HIV are taught, the school must 'stress abstinence.' She is confused about whether she can teach about safer sex practices, so during lesson planning, the teacher verifies that she can still teach about the health benefits of condoms even while emphasizing the benefits of postponing sexual activity."
There are, of course, those who think this level of discussion about sexuality shouldn’t be happening in schools at all. And there are also those who believe that a social and emotional approach that emphasizes setting boundaries and forming healthy relationships is more important than a focus on more clinical and practical content. It will be interesting to watch this conversation unfold further.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.