NEW ORLEANS — Education reform minus a comprehensive sex-education platform is an incomplete agenda.
What is more “Common Core” than sex and sexuality? But you never hear school leaders demand academic accountability around students’ sexual knowledge. Like it or not, school-aged students are still having sex. We should test what students know. Educators actually could, but we haven’t adopted national sex education standards to make those proper assessments.
A lack of information fuels young people’s curiosities and/or pathologies. Lena Dunham made plain the need for young people to have safe educational spaces to guide their journeys of sexuality and relationships. The actress, screenwriter and director recently published her memoir that details her sexual development, of which a National Review columnist called “the sort of thing that gets children taken away from non-millionaire families without Andover pedigrees.” Dunham at the age of 7 included her 1 year old sister in her personal sexual development.
Amidst the debate over how we should judge Dunham today, one thing became clear. Shaming children or adults won’t suppress sexual curiosity among students and it won’t help victims of abuse. The best we can do is to respond to invariable questions around sexuality with accurate information in a safe space that takes into account culture, family expectations and the nature of our relationships — schools.
Students aren’t going to wait very long to get their questions answered about sex. The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rate among industrialized countries. But black and Hispanic women have the highest teen pregnancy rates (100 and 84 per 1,000 women aged 15–19, respectively); whites have the lowest rate (38 per 1,000). Teen fatherhood rates also vary by race. In 2010, the rate among black males aged 15 to 19 who became fathers (29 per 1,000) was more than twice that among whites (14 per 1,000).
The CDC found that nearly half of the 19 million new STDs each year are among young people aged 15 to 24 years old. One in four sexually active teenagers contract a sexually transmitted disease each year. Preaching abstinence or putting condoms on bananas isn’t enough.
Despite these numbers, only 22 states require sex education. The offerings vary widely. The Guttmacher Institute puts our regular reports on sex and HIV education. Guttmacher found that 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation. However, nine states require that discussion of sexual orientation be inclusive. Three states require only negative information on sexual orientation. This is why we need national standards. Sex can’t be that different between Arizona and D.C.
But we do have U.S. standards. National Sexuality Education Standards have been developed by a national advisory board and produced by the Future of Sex Education (FoSE). These standards represent the minimum, essential content that should be covered in each grade level, but a comprehensive sex education can go above and beyond. However, educators of all stripes have not made a national push to adopt and implement them.
Currently, Common Core standards have been developed for reading and math. These standards have been adopted (somewhat tenuously) in 43 states. These subjects were chosen because “they are areas upon which students build skill sets that are used in other subjects.”
Teachers and students are tasked with the difficult charge of inducing knowledge about sex and relationships from building blocks of language, math, science and social studies. While conducting research for this column, one teacher told me, “A good biology course would give kids the information they need to make informed choices.” Educators consequently test whether or not students can make sense, build connections and understand the why of a phenomenon (Common Core assessments are built to just that).
But shouldn’t we get real with sex?
“Sexuality is about much more than body parts. Nobody would teach young people to drive by simply teaching them about the parts of a car,” said Leslie Kantor, vice president of education, at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Similarly, sex education must include a range of topics including learning about navigating relationships, making and sticking to decisions, and dealing with both the emotional and physical aspects of sex,” Kantor added.
John Dewey famously said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” Education reform needs to incorporate sex education into its agenda. There’s no reason to keep effective education programs out of the classroom, except for our irrational moral convictions. Oregon and Colorado have.
Parents overwhelmingly approve of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools. We have programs that have proven their effectiveness like “Get Real: Comprehensive Sex Education That Works,” developed by the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. And we have evidence of teens and kids putting themselves at risk from a lack of knowledge. We need curricula that are direct, real-world as well as those that are relationship and science based.
We can judge Lena Dunham now for her sexual curiosities as a child, but are we to institute shaming as a practice to curb risky sexual behaviors? No. Without national sexuality education standards, education reform is woefully incomplete, and we put our children at risk.
Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).