Imagine this dilemma: There are two ways to approach a subject taught in just about every high school in America. One way is supported by research, many educators and most parents. Another way is favored by a vocal minority who have the ear of Congress.
Since the subject is education where local communities are supposed to have a great say in what is taught and how you'd think that this dilemma would be easily resolved. If parents and educational research favor the first approach, then use it in the classroom. If the subject was math or English, that's likely to happen.
But the subject is sex. Hence, the dilemma.
Two new studies indicate a growing disconnect between what is taught and what parents actually want their children to learn. Researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute compared two samples of middle- and high-school sex education teachers from 1988 and 1999. They found that, last year, 23 percent of those teachers taught abstinence as the "only way of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, compared with 2 percent in 1988."
Asked what message was most important to convey to students, 38 percent of the teachers in 1988 said "responsibility." That percentage dropped to 20.9 last year.
There's a plausible explanation for what is behind this shift: Federal money.
Nationally, the federal government has appropriated $250 million to be spent over five years for abstinence-only programs. No doubt the pressure on Congress to fund this item was intense, but it wasn't representative of public opinion.
A survey done by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health research organization, found that the overwhelming majority of parents in America want schools to provide more, not less, sex education. And they want classroom lessons to cover a variety of topics: abstinence, yes, but also contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and sexual orientation.
"The message is that parents are looking for a true comprehensive approach, including abstinence "and birth control," says Tina Hoff, Kaiser director of public health. "What parents want is at odds with the current trends."
It is not, however, at odds with current research. Critics of comprehensive sex education contend that teaching students about contraception and abortion sanctions premarital sex and encourages sexual activity. That's just not so.
Doug Kirby, a senior research scientist at ETR Associates, a California-based nonprofit health education organization, reviewed all the studies of these programs to see whether they hastened the onset of sexual activity, or increased the frequency or the number of partners. Of the 23 studies he examined, seven programs delayed the onset of sexual activity, 15 had no impact and only one hastened it.
Kirby also looked at studies of abstinence-only education and found that it had no effect on any of the students' subsequent sexual activity. But he believes there were too few studies to conclude it doesn't work.
Kirby's research also describes the characteristics of an effective sex ed program. A key component is a consistent message "toward convincing the students that abstaining from sex, using condoms or using other forms of contraception was the right choice."
The message to educators and politicians must be equally clear: Stop viewing this as a choice between two extremes.
Sure, there's an argument that none of this belongs in school, that parents ought to be the ones to explain the birds and bees and birth control. Maybe a few parents can teach the whole curriculum. Most mortals cannot.
Talking about sex regularly with teen-agers is sensitive and difficult, which is why the messages conveyed at home need to be reinforced in school.
Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Distributed by KRT Information Services.