While the Republican presidential candidates chased each other through the primaries and President Obama embarked on the campaign trail, a recent announcement about sex education in America quietly made history.
For the first time ever, educators, local and state board members, and parents have a set of uniform, national sexuality education standards to measure the content of their schools’ programs: The National Sexuality Education Standards. Its goal is “to provide clear, consistent, and straightforward guidance on the essential minimum, core content for sexuality education that is age-appropriate for students in grades K–12.”
Publication of the standards is an important step forward in standardizing, normalizing, and improving sex education throughout the nation. If widely implemented, our youths’ well-being, health, and academic achievement will improve. Programs modeled after the standards could lower our high rate of teen pregnancy and even higher rate of teen sexual transmitted diseases. Emphasis, of course, is on the “if.” If professional educators, parents, and school board members give these standards a fair hearing.
Development of the standards is the result of a two-year-effort spearheaded by five prestigious organizations: The American Association of Health Education, The American School Health Association, The National Education Association Health Information Network, The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education, and The Future of Sex Education (FoSE) Initiative. (FoSE includes three national sexuality education organizations: Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS.)
These experts believe that “sexual development… [is] a normal, natural, healthy part of human development.” They substitute abstinence-only approaches, which still receive government funding, for a more comprehensive, evidence-based approach.
The standards join a growing body of national standards for other school curricula, such as math, reading, and health, which only benefit our national education system. Long after serving on the New Jersey State Board of Education decades ago, I believed that excessive local control of school curricula—particularly sex education— can prevent young people from getting challenging content that prepares them to live in the global village. When it comes to sex education, a small group of parents at the local level can often control the curriculum to a point where students get only limited, often dishonest information.
The standards are based on research-driven evidence and developmentally and age-appropriate norms, yet teaching more than abstinence might be seen as controversial. Some parents, educators, and politicians believe that school sex education programs should focus only on abstinence and that instruction on contraception can encourage young people to have sex.