FAMILY LIFE EDUCATION IN MAINE PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
A TEN YEAR LOOK AT CHANGES IN TOPICS, POLICY, AND PROCEDURE
Sandra L. Caron, Ph.D., Eilean Moskey, M.S.
University of Maine
Sandra L. Caron
University of Maine
57499 Merrill Hall
Orono, ME 04469
This survey provides information on the status of family life/sexuality
education in the State of Maine from 1990 to 2000. Responses were
provided from 274 Health Education teachers and Family and Consumer Sciences
teachers surveyed in 1990 and 147 teachers surveyed in 2000 from Maine's
middle schools and high schools. Information was obtained in five
primary areas: 1) the topics they teach; 2) their perceptions of the purpose
of family life/sexuality education; 3) policy and procedure issues; 4)
community support and involvement; and 5) the changes they would like to
see implemented. The results indicate that while it is encouraging to see
the range of topics being presented in both middle schools and high schools
in Maine, the overall findings indicate that very little progress has occurred
over the past decade. Procedures and policy issues, as well as community
involvement, and suggested changes are discussed.
Since the mid-1970's there has been an increasing acceptance of the importance of family life education (also commonly referred to as "sexuality education"). Certainly, concern for such issues as teen sexual activity, pregnancy, STDs, and AIDS, have increased people's interest in this area. And while it is true that pregnancy rates among teens are on the decline, the vast majority of teens (65%) engage in sexual intercourse before they graduate from high school, and research looking across the 1990’s has found that 8% of ninth-graders initiate intercourse before age 13.1
Studies show that the vast majority of people support family life/sexuality education in schools, with 93% supporting teaching sexuality education in high school and 84% supporting it in middle/junior high school.2 This broad support is reflected in the fact that many states now require or encourage family life/sexuality education of some kind. According to the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), nineteen states (including the District of Columbia) require schools to provide both sexuality education and STD/HIV education. An additional 17 states require schools to provide STD/HIV education. Fifteen states do not require schools to provide either sexuality education or STD/HIV education.3
Too often parents and other community members see the goal of this type of education as the prevention of unwanted pregnancy and disease, or to prevent teens from having sex altogether. Instead of taking a problem approach, Cassell and Wilson, in their landmark book Sexuality Education: A Resource Book,4 identified more appropriate reasons to offer sexuality education including: to help prepare young people for upcoming stages of development, to increase comfort with the topic of sexuality, to increase the attitude that sexuality is a normal and positive part of human existence, to provide responsible answers to questions and concerns that arise in an age when the media bombard us with sexual messages, and to increase skills that will enable people to live happy, safe, and responsible lives as sexual beings. Most professionals believe the goal of sexuality education is to promote sexual health.3
Despite these more positive goals, studies that have assessed the content of sexuality curricula have found that they typically focus on the negative consequences of teen pregnancy and disease and the medical aspects of sexuality. Studies conducted on the state level5-7 and on the national level,8-10 as well as those evaluating specific sexuality curricula 11-12 have found that such topics as abstinence, STDs, HIV/AIDS, sexual anatomy and physiology, reproduction and birth typically top the list of areas covered in sexuality education classes. On the other hand, topics identified as positive or in many cases, controversial (such as masturbation, pleasure, homosexuality, and abortion) are often excluded. Furthermore, two recent studies looked at the changing emphasis of sexuality education in public high schools and found an increase in the teaching of abstinence and less emphasis on teaching about topics such as birth control, homosexuality, and abortion.13-14
In this study, a statewide mail survey of Maine's Health Education teachers and Family and Consumer Sciences (formerly Home Economics) teachers was conducted during the spring of 1990 and again in 2000. The purpose of the survey was to acquire information about the status of family life/sexuality education for grades 6-12 and to look for changes over the course of the decade. During this time between 1990 and 2000, the issue of abstinence-only education gained enormous support in Washington D.C., when in 1996, the federal government created an entitlement program, Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, that provided $50 million federal dollars per year for five years into all 50 states. Since then, the federal government has approved millions of dollars in additional funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.15
The State of Maine is one of 32 states that do not require sexuality education. However, it does indirectly recommend its inclusion in the curriculum. Since 1984, with the Educational Reform Act, Maine has had a mandate for comprehensive health education, of which one of the 10 content areas is Family Life Education. Broadly defined, this area includes such topics as: family structure, roles and responsibilities, sex stereotypes, marriage and divorce, contraception and family planning, the reproductive process, prenatal care, heredity, parenting, physical and sexual abuse, latch-key children, and baby-sitting skills/responsibilities.16 Teachers might also include sexuality education issues when covering one of the other 10 content areas such as: Community Health, Personal Health, or Prevention and Control of Disease and Disorders. Only half a credit is needed in Health Education to graduate from a Maine high school, meaning there is not much exposure to the information, and there are no repeat classes for updating students with new information.17
The sample included 421 teachers from Maine public middle schools and high schools. The total response for the 1990 mailing was 274 out of 535 mailed surveys; including 135 Health Education teachers and 139 Family and Consumer Sciences teachers. This represented a 51% response rate. A total of 77 teachers taught at the middle school level, 168 teachers taught high school, and 29 indicated they taught at both levels. The total response for the 2000 mailing was 147 out of 352 mailed surveys (96 Health teachers; 51 Family and Consumer Sciences teachers) for a response rate of 42%. A total of 51 teachers taught at the middle school level, 85 taught at the high school level, and 11 teachers indicated they taught at both levels.
The survey instrument was adapted from a measure used to assess sexuality education in the state of Florida.18 The final survey contained 22 questions within five primary areas: 1) the topics which are taught; 2) the perceived purpose of family life/sexuality education; 3) policy and procedure issues; 4) community support and involvement; and 5) suggestions for change.
In the spring of the school year in both 1990 and 2000, questionnaires were mailed with a cover letter to all Health Education teachers and Family and Consumer Sciences teachers for grades 6-12. These teachers were identified as being in the best position to have specific information related to family life/sexuality education. Names and addresses were provided by the State Department of Education. Teachers were assured that their responses would be confidential and reported anonymously. Since no identifying information was recorded, a follow-up postcard mailed to all teachers served as both a thank you for those who had returned the survey and as a reminder for those who had not already done so.
Teachers were asked to review a list of 22 topics related to family life/sexuality education and indicate if they covered any of these topics in their classroom. The topics most frequently identified by teachers (75% or higher) in both the 1990 sample and 2000 sample include Decision-Making, HIV/AIDS, STDs, Reproduction, Abstinence, and Pregnancy/Birth. The topics least likely to be identified by the teachers in both samples (less than 50% of teachers indicated they discuss these topics) include: Sexual Orientation, Masturbation, Sex for Pleasure, and Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Issues. Except for puberty, all topics were taught more frequently at the high school level as compared to topics taught in the middle school. Topics are presented in Table 1 from most to least frequently taught.
When comparing the middle school teachers’ responses from 1990 and 2000, the percent of teachers who say they teach a topic increased in 2000 for nearly all of the topics listed. In other words, more topics were introduced earlier to students in the middle school level in 2000 as compared to 1990. When comparing the high school teachers’ responses for topics taught in 1990 and 2000, there is an increase in the percentage (as much as 9%) of those teaching Abstinence, Contraception, Body Image, Sex for Pleasure, and Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual issues in 2000. However, despite this increase, only half of high school teachers indicated they are including the topics of Sex for Pleasure and Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual issues in their classes. Finally, the largest overall increase and only significant one (X2=8.511, p< .01) observed from 1990 to 2000 was in the topic of Abstinence, with 81% of all teachers indicating they include this in their curriculum.
Teachers were also asked to check those topics they felt should be covered in greater depth. As presented in Table 2, the 1990 sample most frequently identified the topics needing to be covered in greater depth as: Parenting, Rape/Sexual Assault, HIV/AIDS, Decision-Making, and Child Sexual Abuse. For the 2000 sample, the most frequently indicated topics teachers felt should be covered in greater depth included: Abstinence, Rape/Sexual Assault, Decision-Making, Parenting, and STDs. Very few teachers in both samples felt that more time should be spent on such topics as: Genitalia Identification, Masturbation, Sex for Pleasure, Abortion, and Sex for Procreation
Teachers were also given the opportunity to review the list of topics and cross out any that they felt should not be included in the teaching of family life/sexuality education. Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Issues, Sex for Pleasure, and Masturbation were most frequently identified by teachers in both the 1990 and 2000 sample as topics for exclusion from the curriculum (see Table 3). All teachers agreed on the importance of keeping some topics in the curriculum. Specifically, no teacher crossed out Abstinence, HIV/AIDS, STDs, Body Image, and Decision-Making.
Purpose of Family Life/Sexuality Education
Teachers were asked about their view of the purpose of family life/sexuality education. A series of seven reasons were listed and teachers were asked to indicate their agreement to each on a continuum from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree. The five purposes of family life/sexuality education identified by Cassell and Wilson4 were included (items 1-5). Two additional items were included that focused on prevention of sexual intercourse and prevention of pregnancies and disease. See Table 4.
The overwhelming majority of teachers (95% or more) agreed with most of the items, including the statement that such a program could work to prevent pregnancy and disease. Fewer teachers agreed that the purpose for family life/sexuality education was to promote abstinence. Although many teachers were neutral or disagreed with this purpose, over half of the teachers (53% in 1990 and 66% in 2000) agreed that one purpose of family life/sexuality education is to prevent teens from engaging in sexual intercourse.
Policy and Procedure Issues
Teachers were asked a series of eight questions related to policy and procedure issues for their own school district. Significant differences were found between the 1990 and 2000 sample for each question. As reported in Table 5, the teachers in the 2000 sample were significantly more likely to select “Don’t Know” as a response to nearly all of these questions as compared to the 1990 sample.
With regard to teacher certification, most (68% in 1990 and 76% in 2000) said that their school district requires teachers to be certified in a specific area. The majority (76% in 1990 and 63% in 2000) said that their school district is not required to provide them with in-service education. Nearly half (54% of the 1990 sample and 41% in the 2000 sample) said that there has never been a survey of the community or parents to ascertain support for their family life/sexuality education program.
In terms of identifying people in the community to assist teachers with their program, over half (66% in 1990 and 56% in 2000) said there is no recommendation or policy for this. In addition, only one-third of both samples said that they evaluate their program. Of those who do evaluate their program, approximately one-third use pretest/posttest questionnaires of students' knowledge and attitudes, and informal surveys of students.
Almost two-thirds (77% in 1990 and 69% in 2000) said that as teachers they are free to answer any question a student asks. While only 5% of the teachers in 1990 did not know if it was okay to answer any students’ question, 18% of teachers in 2000 did not know if this was okay or not. In terms of teaching about birth control, nearly two-thirds (78% and 68%) said that there are no guidelines or provisions in place. For the teachers who have certain rules to follow about presenting birth control (14% in both 1990 and 2000), in many cases, parental permission is required, actual methods cannot be shown or touched by students, or birth control information cannot be taught at all (at any grade level).
Community Support and Involvement
Teachers were asked five questions related to community support and involvement. Results are presented in Table 6. When asked about the existence of a community-wide committee to support family life/sexuality education, most (68% in 1990 and 67% in 2000) said that such a committee does not exist. For those who had a committee, membership typically included teachers, school administrators, parents, and health agency personnel. Physicians, students, clergy, and social service personnel were least likely to be identified as members of such a committee. There was a significant difference (X2=13.749, p< .01) between the two samples on this question; more teachers in 1990 reported that a community-wide committee exists to support the program (25% versus 16%), while more teachers in 2000 reported that they “Don’t Know” if such a committee exists (18% in 2000 compared to 7% in 1990).
Teachers were asked if meetings were held for parents and other community members to educate them about the family life/sexuality education program. Only about one-third (34% in 1990 and 23% in 2000) said that these meetings were held. Finally, when asked if the need for family life/sexuality education was being met by any other community organizations, almost half of the teachers said that they didn't know. Of those who said yes (38% in 1990 and 37% in 2000), most teachers identified Family Planning and local churches in the community as important contributors to family life/sexuality education.
Suggestions for Change
The majority of teachers (72% in 1990 and 68% in 2000) felt that changes are needed in their school in terms of the family life/sexuality education program. When asked to specify what changes they would like to see, there was no significant difference (X2=10.339, n.s,) in the responses of teachers’ in 1990 and 2000. The most frequently cited change was a desire to spend more time on some topics (23% in 1990 and 27% in 2000). Teachers in 1990 and 2000 also felt that they could use more training (20% and 15%), that some topics should be introduced in earlier grades (18% and 22%), and that they could use more support from parents and the community (17% and 11%). A few teachers also agreed that better evaluation of the effects of their teaching would be useful (12% and 11%). Of the list of the changes to choose from, more financial support was selected by very few teachers (10% in 1990 and 13% in 2000).
While it is encouraging to see the range of topics being presented in both middle schools and high schools in Maine, the overall results indicate that very little progress has occurred over the past decade. Specifically, many teachers appear to be operating from a problem or sex-negative approach. This becomes evident when one examines the topics most frequently presented by teachers (for example, HIV/AIDS, STDS, Pregnancy/Birth, Abstinence), as well as the topics selected by teachers for inclusion in their curriculum. Many teachers indicate that they would like to see more time spent on such topics as Rape/Sexual Assault, HIV/AIDS, and Child Sexual Abuse (all which focus on the negative results of sex). These findings support the conclusions by the Alan Guttmacher Institute13 and the Kaiser Family Foundation14 that found that abstinence and disease figures prominently in most sex education.
This narrow and negative approach becomes even more evident when you look at what many teachers said should not be included in a family life/sexuality program, such as Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual Issues, Sex for Pleasure, and Masturbation. This is particularly concerning when you remember that these are Health Education teachers and Family and Consumer Sciences teachers - not teachers trained in other disciplines such as Math or English. If these teachers are not planning to provide education in these areas, where do they think students are going to get the information? For example, if gay/lesbian/bisexual issues are not going to be discussed in health class, they are not likely to be included in such courses as Math.
In terms of the purpose of family life/sexuality education, most teachers agreed with the purposes outlined in the survey. The overwhelming majority of teachers agreed that family life/sexuality education helps prepare students for upcoming stages of development, increases their comfort with sexuality, increases their attitudes that sexuality is normal and positive, and provides responsible answers and skills for safe and responsible living. Many teachers also agreed that such programs prevent pregnancy and STDs. While it is encouraging that so many teachers hold these beliefs, it is in direct contradiction to what some teachers say they are doing in their classroom. Many teachers support these positive reasons for family life/sexuality education, but they are still emphasizing the negative. For example, as discussed above, how can a student who is gay or lesbian grow up to feel good about him/herself if no one ever mentions sexual orientation or gay/lesbian issues? How can students develop skills to lead safer sexual lives if they aren't allowed to see or touch a condom - let alone be provided with basic information on how to use one? It is not uncommon to teach CPR in health class as a lifesaving skill; perhaps we should be teaching other lifesaving skills - such as how to negotiate safer sex or how to use a condom?
In terms of the belief that one purpose is the prevention of teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs, we cannot even begin to hope to have an impact on these concerns until we make a true commitment to Comprehensive Family Life/Sexuality Education (not just a broadly defined program in Health Education). Until that time, it is unrealistic to hope that a five minute or five month course can make such a difference in the number of teen pregnancies and diseases.
The results on policy and procedures offer useful clues for the improvement and implementation of family life/sexuality education. Most teachers indicated that there is no policy for in-service training, identifying community support, or the evaluation of their programs. Such policies could be useful for the development of a strong program. A survey of the community and parents regarding their support for family life/sexuality education would provide useful information and encouragement, assuming the results are like most polls that show an overwhelming support for sex education. 14
Responses to questions concerning community support indicate that there appears to be very little interaction with teachers and the community, implying that many teachers are working in isolation. Most teachers said that they did not have a community-wide committee, they don't hold meetings to educate community members, and they generally seem unaware of other programs in their community. It was surprising to see how many teachers selected "Don't Know" as a response when asked about community issues. Of particular importance should be the formulation of a community-wide committee. This committee should also include students as well as parents, since it is ultimately students that the program will need to reach. Few teachers indicated student involvement on their committees. Finally, teachers’ suggestions for change provided the most positive and encouraging results. Most teachers acknowledged the "too little, too late, too biological" phenomena of family life/sexuality education programs; many teachers said they would like to have more time and they would like to see some topics introduced in earlier grades.
Overall, this study provides significant information on the status of family life/ sexuality education in Maine and supports other findings that suggest that a changing emphasis of sexuality education is occurring on the national level in public schools.13-14 The increasing emphasis on the teaching of abstinence and the negative consequences of teen pregnancy and disease, at the same time that there is a decreasing emphasis on teaching about topics such as abortion, homosexuality and pleasure, suggests a shift away from comprehensive sexuality education. While many teachers are doing excellent work in their classrooms and should be applauded, we still have a lot of work to do. If we truly believe in graduating sexually educated, sexually literate, and sexually healthy young adults, middle schools and high schools will need to make some of these important changes.
Further research is greatly needed to more fully understand the status of family life/sexuality education in Maine and across the nation, as well as the impact of the federal support for abstinence-only education. While we now have some information on what topics are covered and in what grades they are discussed, we still do not know much about the amount of time spent on each topic. In addition to the reliance on teacher self-reports, these findings are based on the responses of only about half the teachers assigned to teach family life/sexuality education. We are left to guess what the other half of teachers are doing in their classroom. It could be assumed that those teachers who completed this survey are the most motivated and involved teachers - "the cream of the crop" - so to speak. If this is the case, we have a lot more work to do, since the overall findings are not as encouraging as one might hope.
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