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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

Evaluating Sexuality Education Curriculums

Decision makers should evaluate sexuality-education programs for high standards of credibility, content, and sensitivity to the students and community.

Sexuality education is an emotionally charged issue. In many communities, selecting a curriculum for sexuality education serves as a lightning rod for controversy and high emotions.

Abstinence-Only Curriculums

Intensifying this controversy is the federal funding now available for abstinence-only curriculums, which teach that abstaining from sexual activity is the only acceptable choice for unmarried adolescents. In many such programs, contraception is usually not mentioned or is discussed only in terms of the failure rates of contraceptive devices
The new federal funding is provided under Public Law 104-193, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (sometimes called the Welfare Reform Act), which for five years makes $50 million available annually for abstinence-only programs. States must provide $3 to match each $4 of the federal funds they receive. A number of groups have responded by developing secondary-school sexuality-education curriculums that meet abstinence-only federal-funding guidelines.
  • "abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children";
  • "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects"; and
  • "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."
Some of the assertions in Public Law 104-193 are personal opinions, not science. For example, although most would agree that premature sexual intercourse is unwise, there are no documented studies that have suggested that premarital sexual intercourse leads to "harmful psychological and physical effects" or that such traumas are avoided merely by being married. In addition, these unscientific assertions and scare tactics appear in materials whose designers may not necessarily have adequate experience or credentials in curriculum design or health education. Finally, the demonstratable efficacy of abstinence-only programs for reducing premature sexual activity is still unclear (Kirby, 1997).
There are some quality abstinence-only materials—Removing the Risk (Barth & Abbey, 1997), Abstinence: Pick and Choose Activities (Young & Young, 1996), and Sex Can Wait (Core-Gebhart, Hart, Young, & Young, 1994). However, the notion of providing incomplete information to secondary-school students is troubling. But if a school district does decide to adopt an abstinence-only curriculum, the adoption decision should be based on scientific merit and careful screening.

Abstinence-Plus Curriculums

Rather than restrict the discussion of sexuality only to abstinence, a more effective approach is to discuss abstinence from sexual activity as the first and best choice for adolescents, yet include a scientific discussion of contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and other sexuality issues as crucial elements of lifetime-sexuality information. Most professional health-education associations—including the American School Health Association, American Public Health Association, and American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance—recommend that an abstinence-based (also known as abstinence-plus) sexuality education be part of the broader, coordinated school-health program.
In contrast to the studies of abstinence-only programs, studies of abstinence-plus curriculums for sexuality education indicate that students do not increase sexual activity and in some cases actually delay the onset of intercourse and reduce the frequency of intercourse or the number of sexual partners. Also, these studies suggest that some of the programs generally increased the use of contraceptives (Kirby, 1997).

Evaluating Sexuality Curriculums

When parents, teachers, and other school officials have committed themselves to the desired message of the sexuality-education curriculum, they should closely evaluate all such programs according to three important criteria: the credibility of the information and staff training materials, the content of the curriculum materials as they fit into the context of a program in health education, and the sensitivity of the curriculum to students and the school community.


What is the scientific basis for this curriculum? Is it founded on data-based research with appropriate methods and design? Do recognized medical groups, such as the American Medical Association and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, recommend it? Does the curriculum also include a built-in methodology for updating and incorporating new scientific information as it becomes available? Schools would not choose a math or science curriculum on the basis of nonscientific, anecdotal research. Why should a sexuality curriculum be any different?
Does this curriculum have academic credibility? What are the academic credentials, backgrounds, and training of the writers, developers, and external evaluators of this curriculum? Writers of sexuality-education curriculums, as with writers of curriculums in any content area, should have academic training and credentials in sexuality and health education, as should those who examine, evaluate, or endorse curriculums. Certified Health Education Specialist credentials, as well as degrees in health and wellness or in the science of human development, indicate the professional credibility of the writers and evaluators.
  • Does the staff receive accurate and detailed information about sexuality?
  • Does the staff receive help in examining their own personal attitudes about sexuality?
  • Does the staff receive training in the concrete skills necessary to effectively teach a sexuality-education program? For example, teachers need training in setting up real-life problem-solving situations, and in developing effective role playing that offers students opportunities to rehearse and successfully navigate difficult material.


Does this curriculum address only sexual intercourse or the broad spectrum of sexuality? Sexuality involves much more than sexual intercourse. A comprehensive sexuality-education program should include discussions of relationships, communication, and respect. Classroom discussions and activities should cover such topics as anatomy and physiology, acceptable and unacceptable public behavior when dating, and the differences between assertiveness and manipulation, as well as issues related to conception, pregnancy, and delivery.
Does this curriculum acknowledge that sexual maturation is a normal part of adolescent development? Sexual feelings, awkwardness, and uncertainty about physical growth and development are natural during adolescence. An effective curriculum affirms that these concerns are normal, provides the knowledge and skills necessary to help adolescents address their concerns, and presents such information only to students who are old enough to grasp its significance.
Does this curriculum help students acquire the necessary self-esteem and assertiveness skills to choose to abstain from sexual activity? Abstinence from sexual activity is the only completely effective way to avoid pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other complications from premature sexual activity. Curriculums should provide age-appropriate strategies that help students develop the social skills necessary for avoiding premature sexual activity (National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1988).
A curriculum can increase awareness of the consequences of irresponsible sexual behavior, for example, by introducing a "what-if" game; students list future ideal life-goal situations but then must consider how those goals would have to be modified and what students would face if they contracted a sexually transmitted disease.
Does this curriculum provide a comprehensive discussion of contraception? A coordinated, comprehensive health-education program, of which sexuality education is but one component, should provide scientifically correct information about contraception to students who are at the age to understand it; such information is not appropriate for students in the elementary grades. Providing information about contraception does not endorse unsafe sex any more than teaching students about seat belts and air bags encourages unsafe driving. Providing students with information about contraceptives gives the students the basis for making decisions now and later in life. Withholding information from students is neither pedagogically nor ethically defensible.
Does the curriculum focus on teaching students how to make healthy decisions beyond those involving sexual activity? Sexuality education should be part of a coordinated program that teaches students appropriate decision-making skills that can be applied across a variety of health-decision scenarios. For example, learning to plan and monitor a personal weight-management program involves basic decision-making skills. A health-education curriculum should provide activities and skills to help students develop positive feelings about themselves.
Does this curriculum fit within a coordinated program in health education? Sexuality education is only one component of a coordinated program in health education, which should also include community health, consumer health, environmental health, family life, mental and emotional health, injury prevention and safety, nutrition, personal health, prevention and control of disease, and prevention of substance use and abuse. Instruction should treat these content areas as interrelated parts of the curriculum (American School Health Association, 1995).

Sensitivity to Students and Community

Is the curriculum age-appropriate? An explicit discussion of sexuality is not appropriate for elementary-school children. Most experts agree that more detailed discussions of sexuality should begin in 5th or 6th grade. However, local community and school district standards should determine levels of appropriateness for different age groups. Numerous resources exist to help guide these discussions. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) produces annotated bibliographies of a number of quality abstinence-plus and abstinence-only curriculums. Another excellent resource is The Sexuality Education Challenge: Promoting Health Sexuality in Young People (Drolet & Clark, 1994). In addition, state departments of education sometimes offer technical assistance on sexuality education to local school district officials.
Does this program avoid stereotypes and biases? A quality curriculum does not assume that all students are heterosexual. The wording of Public Law 104-193 assumes that all students are heterosexual and will eventually be married. In contrast, the curriculum materials of a good abstinence-plus program show respect and consideration for women and men, all ethnic groups, the disabled, and those whose sexual orientation differs from the heterosexual majority. In addition, students with a limited English proficiency should receive the same information in their own languages (National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1988).
Does this curriculum present a balanced, reasoned approach to sexuality, or does it rely on scare tactics and negative messages? Although scare tactics may be effective with some students, a more positive educational approach has better results. Students tend to ignore the doom-and-gloom approach to sexuality education, so teachers should present information in a way that gets the students' attention and makes clear the risks of premature sexual activity.
One scare tactic is to describe condoms as providing little to no protection from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and as having a 33 percent failure rate in preventing pregnancies. A reasoned approach informs students that condoms are not 100 percent effective but provide significant protection from STDs and pregnancy when used consistently and correctly. Further discussion focuses on why students would choose to be sexually active in light of the problems associated with premature sexual activity, what usage errors cause condoms to fail, and why people sometimes don't use condoms correctly. Discussions of this kind reinforce the decision of students who choose to remain abstinent and provide scientific information to those who are or will be sexually active.
Does the curriculum facilitate dialogue with parents and guardians? Parents and guardians should work as partners with schools. Because of the sensitive nature of some areas of health instruction, parents and guardians should have the opportunity to provide input into the school-health curriculum (National Coalition of Advocates for Students, 1988).
These questions provide one set of tools to help select an effective, scientifically accurate curriculum for an abstinence-based education. Those who select curriculums for sexuality education should be aware that abstinence-only curriculums often do not provide enough information about how students can protect their health and make life-affirming decisions if the students are sexually active now or become sexually active in adulthood.
The best resource for choosing a curriculum for sexuality education is a concerned group of administrators, teachers, and parents who are committed to providing students with accurate information and opportunities for practice in the skills needed to avoid the risks of premature sexual activity. As in all areas of learning, more knowledge is better than less.

American School Health Association. (1995). National health education standards: Achieving health literacy. Kent, OH: Author.

Barth, R., & Abbey, N. (1997). Removing the risk: Abstinence for high school students. Santa Cruz, CA: Education Training Research (ETR) Associates.

Core-Gebhart, P., Hart, S., Young, M., & Young, T. (1994). Sex can wait: An abstinence-based sexuality curriculum for middle and high school. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Drolet, J. C., & Clark, K. (Eds.). (1994). The sexuality education challenge: Promoting health sexuality in young people. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

Kirby, D. (1997). No easy answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy.

National Coalition of Advocates for Students. (1988). Criteria for evaluating an HIV curriculum. Boston: Author.

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, 42 U.S.C. 710 et seq. Available: www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/42/710.html

Young, M., & Young, T. (1996). Abstinence: Pick and choose activities. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR Associates.

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