Sex Ed: What IT Is and What IT Isn't

Few topics in education are as controversial as sex education and there are often significant misunderstandings about what is and isn't taught in schools throughout the country. As it turns out, the content of sex education varies significantly by state, by district and even from one teacher to the next within a school.

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Deciding What to Teach

Students and their teachers may stumble over the different nomenclature each uses in a sex education class. Similarly, parents and community members often misinterpret and misunderstand what their local schools teach and don't teach about sexuality. It's helpful to begin by noting that there is no national standard for sex education in schools. Instead, there is a tiered system within states that leads to a wide divergence in content, timing and other aspects of sex education.

Each state's board of education decides upon that individual state's policies. Then, each district within a state determines what instruction will be provided within the constraints agreed upon by the state board. Next, each school within a district determines its own path. Finally, each teacher within a school is permitted to determine what is taught, as long as it complies with the regulations that come from above. This means that two teachers in the same school may provide different instruction, in the same way two English teachers may focus on different novels, though they must adhere to state, district and school standards.

All States Are Not Equal

Only 21 states mandate sex education, which typically means some form of education on sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, 33 states require education on HIV. Only 13 states have requirements regarding the medical accuracy of sex education. In 39 states, abstinence must be stressed or covered, while only 20 states require information on condoms or contraception.

There are many conflicts from state to state. For example, Michigan teachers can't teach about abortion, or even mention the term, while discussing abortion is a required part of sex education in New Jersey. Alabama, Texas and South Carolina mandate that homosexuality is only discussed in a negative way, while nine states require inclusive discussions of homosexuality. Then there's Utah, the only state where teachers are explicitly barred from responding to spontaneous questions from students if they may conflict with state requirements.

What Gets Cut

The controversial nature of sex education makes it a frequent target when schools are cutting budgets. There are many aspects of sex education that are often sacrificed in order to provide at least a fundamental explanation of the biological aspects of sex. For example, many schools lack the time to teach students about fostering healthy relationships, a subject students often request. In areas where abstinence-only sex education is taught, students may not learn about the transmission and consequences of STIs. This is often a result of parents arguing that teaching about sex is equivalent to encouraging sex, despite significant research that refutes that idea.

Experts on sex education typically argue that sex education is rarely provided early enough or with enough substance. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may back up these claims. Rates for some sexually transmitted infections among teens diseases have been rising steadily since 1996. Cases of chlamydia, for example, have steadily climbed among those between ages 15 and 19 from 196,071 in 1996 to 429,173 in 2009. While states, districts and schools wrangle over what to teach and how to teach it, the answer may always be that more education is better.

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