The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.
I stumbled into the teaching profession. I’d been working as a counselor at a facility that was part high school, part group home. The school was searching for someone with a college degree who could fill in as a teacher. It was a little better pay than what I was making, so I went for it.
I wasn’t a great teacher, or even a good one. Before I stepped in front of a classroom, my training consisted of a single day I spent shadowing the health teacher, who I’d be replacing.
Legally, sure, I was allowed to teach. I’d gotten an emergency teaching credential that allowed me work so long as I attended night classes where I learned how to actually be a teacher.
But that didn’t mean I had any idea what I was doing. Before he vanished, the outgoing teacher shoved a tattered edition of a health book into my hands, told me to follow the simple lesson plans he put together, then wished me luck.
Then, it was just me, 25 students and the sex education unit we were supposed to cover.
Up first: pregnancy. I asked students to turn to Page 39, then began to read. Not a minute passed before one student raised his hand very high in the air.
“Mr. Koran!” he shouted. “I heard that, like, if you don’t got the condoms, you can use the plastic wraps, or the Saran wraps, and that works just as good.”
“No. That’s actually not true at all,” I said, trying to express – as gently as possible – that this was a very stupid idea. And later, when the same student revealed that he had a child of his own, I couldn’t help but wonder if sex education came too late for him.
The lessons in our book consisted of very basic information about human anatomy, condoms, sexually transmitted infections and how your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection goes up the more unprotected sex you have. It wasn’t robust.
Yet, as basic as it was, students in my class may have gotten a more comprehensive sex ed curriculum than what was offered in some California school districts, until recently.
In 2003, the state Legislature mandated that all schools offer HIV prevention education at least once in middle school and once in high school. But a 2011 study by researchers at UC San Francisco found that some school districts were picking and choosing what they wanted to teach, and in some cases providing information that wasn’t medically accurate.
In 2012, parents and advocates in Fresno filed a lawsuit against Clovis Unified School District, arguing that schools were providing students with biased information not backed by science.
One textbook on HIV prevention didn’t even mention condoms, for example. A video on sexual health featured a man who compared his new wife, who was not a virgin, to a dirty shoe.
Because at the time Clovis Unified offered an abstinence-only curriculum and didn’t provide medically accurate information about contraception, a Fresno County Superior Court judge ruled that Clovis Unified violated state law. He called accurate sexual education “an important public right.”
An Atlantic story last year showed that Clovis Unified was wasn’t alone in its apathy toward science:
“While every state engages in some form of sex education for public schoolchildren, only 13 of them have laws requiring that, if such a curriculum is offered, it must be medically accurate and based on scientific evidence. Meanwhile, just 18 states and the District of Columbia require that schools ‘provide instruction on contraception.’ While 26 states and the D.C. teach about healthy sexuality and decision-making, 19 states require that school-based sex education emphasize the importance of abstinence until marriage. Many of these standards, moreover, are open to interpretation.”
The story noted that one of the biggest challenges to offering uniform sexual education is that curriculum is shaped by local school boards, and school board members are influenced by local beliefs. Socially conservative school boards may equate talking to kids about condoms to a tacit endorsement of underage sex, for example.
Compared with many states, though, California is now ahead of the curve when it comes to sex education.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed The California Healthy Youth Act, written by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, which requires school districts to update their curriculums and offer a single, mandatory course of instruction. That includes providing students with medically accurate information about contraception, HIV prevention and general information about healthy relationships.
Yet, in spite of the new requirements, one local high school student is still wondering what sex ed instruction is supposed to look like at their school. The student told us they’re entering senior year of high school and have yet to receive information on sexual relationships or HIV prevention.
Question: What are schools required to teach students as it relates to having safe sex, avoiding unintentional pregnancy and how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections? – A senior high school student, e3 Civic High (The student declined to be named)
Even before Brown signed Weber’s bill, school districts were required to teach HIV prevention at least once in middle school and once in high school.
The new law requires that schools take a much more comprehensive approach to sexual health. Some of the more notable changes relate to a more inclusive view of same-sex relationships and gender norms.
Paige Metz, who coordinates instruction and curriculum for the San Diego Office of Education, named a few ways instruction will change:
• Sexual health education must be comprehensive, medically accurate, age appropriate and appropriate for students with disabilities, English-learners and for students of all races, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, genders and sexual orientation.
• Must affirmatively recognize different sexual orientations and be inclusive of same-sex relationships when providing examples of couples or relationships
• Must teach about gender, gender expression, gender identity and explore the harm of negative gender stereotypes
• Include information students need to protect their health, maintain healthy relationships and understand sexuality as a normal part of human development
• Include information about sexual harassment, sexual assault, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and sex trafficking
• Existing HIV information needs to reflect the developments made over the last 20 years
Parental notifications have also changed. Districts may no longer require that parents opt into sex education. This year, students will automatically get sex ed unless their parents actively opt them out of it.
The ACLU of California put together a 32-point checklist for what school districts need to provide in order to comply with the new law.
Metz said school districts vary in their instructional approaches. San Diego Unified provides instruction through a program supported by a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jennifer Rodriguez, spokesperson for San Diego Unified, said comprehensive sexual health education, including HIV prevention instruction, is taught as a 10-lesson series in sixth grade science, eighth grade science and in high school biology classes throughout the district. Charter schools, like e3 Civic High, are responsible for providing their own sex ed instruction, she said.
Others districts and school sites are figuring out if sex ed will take place in health class, physical education, science or language arts, depending on what classes the school offers.
The new law went into effect in January. This is the first full school-year under the new requirements.
Many schools and districts are currently struggling with the new requirements because the topics could take up to three weeks to cover, Metz said. Others are trying to figure out how they can meet the requirements that may be controversial in their community.
The new requirements certainly make for a more robust sex ed curriculum, but how do we know that schools are actually providing this instruction?
The California Healthy Youth Act doesn’t include a monitoring mechanism to ensure schools are complying with its requirements. But Metz said that one may be in the works. It might be included in Federal Program Monitoring, conducted by the California Department of Education, she said.
If parents, students or members of the public still have questions, Metz recommends they reach out to schools directly to ask how sexual health education is being delivered. They can request to see the instructional materials and curriculum that will be used, she said.
VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.