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Sex ed lacking in schools, CDC report finds

Decisions about health instruction usually made at the district level

Fewer than half of high schools and only one-fifth of middle schools offer comprehensive sex education, according to a December report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

No federal requirements exist for sexual education. Decisions about health curricula are usually made at the district level, and vary widely from state to state and school to school, says Stephanie Zaza, director of CDC’s division of Adolescent Sexual Health.

Some 47 percent of teens say they have had sex, according to the CDC.

“Young people face serious but avoidable sexual health risks, including HIV, STDs and unintended pregnancy if they don’t have the information and skills they need to navigate those relationships in a healthful way,” Zaza says. “Teaching students before they’re sexually active helps prepare them for those relationships.”

Tips for administrators

  • Assess your curriculum against an evidence-based tool, such as the CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool.
  • Build in appropriate age-based standards.
  • Provide PD for teachers to grow confident in teaching the subject.
  • Encourage parents to participate in the curriculum-building process, and reinforce lessons at home.

By the numbers

  • 15% of teens say they have had four or more sexual partners
  • 26% of HIV diagnoses and 50% of all sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. occur among those under age 25
  • 59% of teens say they used a condom the last time they had sex, compared to 63% in 2003

Source: CDC

When well-planned and implemented, sexual health education is associated with waiting to have sex for the first time, fewer sexual partners, and more widespread and consistent use of condoms, the CDC says.

“It is much easier to learn and keep good habits at the beginning of one’s sexual life than to try to unlearn behaviors that are not healthy,” Zaza says.

Assessing curricula

Districts can find guidance in the CDC’s Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (see sidebar). It is based on national health education standards, and contains resources for developing effective health instruction for preK through 12.

If administrators face resistance from parents or community members, Zaza recommends sharing state or local data, if available, about sexual activity in the area. She also advises providing information about the science and benefits of sexual health education.

“Often parents are concerned that somehow teaching sex ed will encourage sexual activity, when in fact the opposite is true,” Zaza says.

Sex ed often occurs during health classes, but some districts add it to science or other courses, Zaza says. Most importantly, it should be required for all students, she adds.