News Sexuality

New Publication Sets Standards for Sex Education

Martha Kempner

This week, a coalition of education organizations released a new document designed to help states and school districts across the country create or evaluate sexuality education curriculum.  

This week, a coalition of education organizations released a new document designed to help states and school districts across the country create or evaluate sexuality education curriculum. The goal of National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K–12 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.”

The standards focus on seven topics:

  • Anatomy and Physiology,
  • Puberty and Adolescent Development,
  • Identity,
  • Pregnancy and Reproduction,
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV,
  • Healthy Relationships,
  • Personal Safety.

Under each topic the standards provide performance indicators—what students should know and be able to do by the end of grades two, five, eight, and 12.

For example, under Pregnancy and Reproduction, the standards say that by the end of second grade students should “explain that all living things reproduce.”  When they finish fifth grade, they should be able to “describe the process of human reproduction.” Three years later by the end of eighth grade they should be able to “define sexual intercourse as it relates to human reproduction” and “demonstrate the use of effective communications skills to support one’s decision to abstain from sexual behavior.” And, by graduation they should be able to “access medically accurate information and resources about emergency contraception” and “analyze factors that influence decisions about whether and when to become a parent.”

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Performance indicators themselves are divided into eight categories such as core concepts, self-management, and interpersonal communication which help align these standards with the National Health Education Standards.  Written by a coalition led by the American Cancer Society, the NHES provide extremely generalized performance indicators such as “Students will comprehend concepts related to health promotion and disease prevention to enhance health,” and “Students will demonstrate the ability to practice health-enhancing behaviors and avoid or reduce health risks.” These national standards which are already used by numerous school districts do not provide any specific information on sexuality or any other topic. The organizations behind the National Sexuality Education Standards hope that by fleshing out the essential information that students should learn in this area they will help school districts better direct their sexuality education efforts.

Monica Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) one of the groups behind the new standards explained that some states, like Montana, have closely aligned their standards with NHES while others have created their own. There is a great deal of variation in what states have created. New Jersey, for example, has very detailed standards but others choose to have broader state-wide standards and leave much of the specifics to local educators and administrators.  The new standards are meant to help them.  “Decisions makers on the local level look for guidance from experts and these standards are based on the best available science and research and informed by best practices. This is the best thinking from experts in the field,” Rodriguez explained.

Rodriguez’s organization publishes the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education; K-12 which is also a framework to help educators develop and evaluate curricula. They differ, however, in that the Guidelines are meant to present the ideal in comprehensive sexuality education while the Standards give educators the essential minimum.  This is intended to meet schools where they are and work within their existing resources.  “Surveys show that most kids get about 8 hours of health education for all of high school —not just sex education but all health education. Most of it does focus on sexuality-related topics, particularly HIV and STDs.  We wanted to help schools understand what they should be covering given this reality.”

Today, there are national standards for many subject areas.  For example, the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) have paired up to create core standards for Math and English/Language Arts.  According to these groups: “The standards were developed in collaboration with teachers, school administrators, and experts, to provide a clear and consistent framework to prepare our children for college and the workforce.”  While no standards are binding on the federal level, one of the hopes for experts in all of these fields is that having such standards will help ensure that students across the country are getting the same-level of education regardless of what state they are in.

Steve Conley, executive director of the American School Health Association (ASHA) says that the early response to the standards from his members is very positive: “I see wide utilization as it just touches such a missing element in education and particularly in this area of education.”  He went to say that sexuality education standards: “Should be very helpful to both parents and teachers in identifying what is the developmentally appropriate foundation when it comes to sexuality topics—what should an eighth grader, for example, know—and what are the sequential next steps.”  ASHA is the oldest agency for the promotion of health in schools and its members include school nurses, health educators, pediatricians, psychologists, and other health professionals working with schools.

In addition to ASHA, the coalition of groups releasing the standards include the American Association of Health Education, the National Education Association—Health Information Network, the Society of State Leaders of Physical Education and Dance, and the Future of Sex Ed Initiative (FoSE).  FoSE is a partnership between Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS that “seeks to create a national dialogue about the future of sex education and to promote the institutionalization of comprehensive sexuality education in public schools.”

The groups hope that this new resource will encourage more schools to provide sexuality education, help school districts improve the quality of sexuality education that young people receive, and will have a positive impact on the lives of young people across the country.

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