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CDC Reveals Little Progress Made in Sex Education Among US Schools From 2008–2010

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an analysis in early April 2012 of School Health Profiles data, HIV, Other STD, and Pregnancy Prevention Education in Public Secondary Schools — 45 States, 2008–2010. Findings indicate that, between 2008 and 2010, little progress was made in increasing the percentage of sexual health topics in question taught in public middle and high schools. Advocates and government officials alike find this lack of progress problematic, particularly considering the percentage of youth who have ever had sex—46% of students by the end of high school—as well as current data about adolescent sexual health, including the recent documented decrease in adolescent birthrates since the late 1990s; that 50 percent of all new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur among young people aged 15–24 years; and, that youth is the only population that HIV incidence is increasing in, driven by an increase in young men who have sex with men of color.[1]

The School Health Profiles document school health policies and practices through questionnaires collected from the principal and/or the lead health education instructors from a given school every two years.[2] The latest data comes from the 45 states that participated in the survey. The CDC recommends 11 key prevention topics for grades 6–8, eight key prevention topics and three condom-related topics for grades 9–12. Key topics in middle school included, for example, how STDs and HIV are transmitted; how to prevent HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy; the benefits of being sexually abstinent; and, communication, negotiation, and decision-making skills. In high school, key topics included all of the middle school topics plus the relationship between alcohol and other drug use and risk for HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy and three condom-related topics.
From 2008–2010, in 11 states the percentage of middle schools addressing all recommended key topics declined and there was no increase in any state.[3] Among recommended topics for grades 9–12, there was a significant decrease in one state and a significant increase in two states.[4] Regarding the condom related topics, the percentage of all three topics taught significantly decreased in eight states and significantly increased in only three states.[5] The percentage of schools that address all of these topics varies widely between states from 12.6 percent in Arizona to 66.3 percent in New York. Similarly, schools that teach eight of the suggested high school topics ranged from 45.3 percent in Alaska to 96.4 percent in New Jersey.[6]
Laura Kann, one of the study’s authors, highlights that this analysis does not provide an explanation for why there are significant decreases in many states and widespread stagnation in several others, “The decision about what gets taught is a local decision. We asked schools what they are doing. We don't ask why.”[7] It is documented that public school instruction can effectively lower adolescent risk to pregnancy and transmission of HIV and STDs, as Kann noted, “We have evidence that teaching these topics can contribute to reduction in risk for HIV, STDs and pregnancy.”[8]
One potential cause for the decrease and stagnation of recommended prevention topics in the nation’s public schools is the increased push to allocate funding and efforts into student test scores, resulting in a reluctance to expand health education. Another cause may be that sexuality education is considered a controversial area of education, and although suggested topics for both middle school and high school include sexual abstinence, sexuality education remains highly politicized. As Monica Rodriguez, president and CEO of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, explained in a recent Reuters article, “the question of how best to teach students about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases remains a divisive issue in many areas […] For many teachers, it's often about fear, fear of controversy.”[9]

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2009” Surveillance Summaries, 4 June 2012, accessed 12 April 2012, <>.
[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “PROFILES: School Health Profiles 2010 Overview,” accessed 10 April 2012, <>.
[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HIV, Other STD, and Pregnancy Prevention Education in Public Secondary Schools — 45 States, 2008–2010,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 6 April 2012, accessed 10 April 2012, <>.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] David Beasley, “Sex education stagnating in US schools, CDC says,” Reuters, 5 April 2012, accessed 6 April 2012, <>.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.