Sex-education standard warrants more attention from state schools
The latest KIDS COUNT report on factors affecting the well-being of West Virginia children offers mixed results.
The assessment, done annually by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, shows improvement over the last several years in the child abuse and neglect rate, the teen injury/death rate and the child death rate. But among the indicators that remain a persistent challenge is the number of teenagers having children.
Teen births had been decreasing in West Virginia and nationally for decades. However, unlike the continuing decline across the country, the Mountain State's rate began rising again in 2005 and continued to do so though 2009. The statewide rate fell again slightly in 2010, the latest available data, but West Virginia's rate remains among the 10 highest, according to KIDS COUNT. The state's rate is 45 births per 1,000 teens, compared with a national rate of 34.
That gap has West Virginia KIDS COUNT Executive Director Margie Hale wondering how rigorously the state's schools are teaching a comprehensive sex-education curriculum approved by the state Department of Education in 2003 as part of the state's health education standards.
Hale contends there is no solid documentation as to how diligently the curriculum is being taught in the state's schools, and the state Department of Education doesn't appear to know either. Spokeswoman Liz Cordeiro said the agency provides a curriculum framework and health-education standards but said counties and schools decide how to implement the "services and environmental strategies" to achieve comprehensive sex education. Cordeiro could not say how many schools are using the state's curriculum.
The curriculum is part of the "content standards" approved by the department and "describe what students' knowledge and skills should be at the end of a K-12 sequence of study." It would seem that the state agency responsible for establishing such standards would have a handle on whether they are being met. Does the same attitude apply to math, reading and science? Let's hope not. Nor should that attitude apply to the sex-education curriculum, which McHale described as largely focused on self-esteem, decision-making, what to expect from boys and how to say no, and how to avoid risky behaviors such as drug use. Birth control methods are just one component.
Hale suspects many schools "are not implementing it because the teacher's not comfortable or the community doesn't want them to or the principal doesn't want them to," she told The Associated Press.
Hale noted that teenagers who get pregnant are more likely to drop out of school and live in poverty and their children are at higher risk of being born underweight and dying before their first birthdays. The children are also less likely to get the intellectual and emotional stimulation necessary for healthy development, experts say.
Are those the consequences we want teen-age girls and their children to face?
The Department of Education and county boards of education should be more aggressive in ensuring that the "content standard" spelled out for sex education is being met by West Virginia schools. Failure to address sex education and help teens cope intelligently with the choices they no doubt will face is a disservice to them and their futures.