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Putting the ‘Pro’ in Programs: Research Shows Teacher Preparation Matters in Sex Ed


Darson L. Rhodes, et al., “Influence of Professional Preparation and Class Structure on Sexuality Topics Taught in Middle and High School,” Journal of School Health (May 2013).


Researchers used data from the 2006 School Health Policies and Practices Study (SHPPS) to learn more about the connection between high-quality sexual health education and health teacher professional preparation.[1] Using a nationally representative sample of more than 89,000 U.S. middle- and high-school teachers of health, the researchers sought to determine whether sexual health topics were more likely to be taught 1) when teachers had a college degree in health education or public health, and 2) when classes were devoted solely to health education rather than combined with physical education (PE) or some other topic. Sexual health topics of interest for the study included the teaching of abstinence, human development, dating/relationships, sexual identity/orientation, condoms, influence of family on sexual behaviors, and influence of media. A total of 13 sexual health topics were included in the analysis. 

Key Findings:

  • The majority of the teachers (62%) were not professionally prepared (i.e. did not have a health education or public health degree).
  • Nearly half of all classes (46%) combined health education with PE or some other topic.
  • Teachers who were not professionally prepared taught three of the 13 topics (condoms, condom efficacy, and sexual identity/orientation) only 50% or less of the time.
  • Professionally-prepared teachers were more likely (69%) to use the instructional strategy of practicing skills (such as role-play activities) as compared to teachers who were not professional prepared (61%).
  • Professionally-prepared teachers were significantly more likely to teach 7 of the 13 sexual health topics as compared to those who were not professionally prepared.


Sexuality education stands a greater chance of being taught more comprehensively when it is taught in classes solely devoted to health education (not combined with physical education) and by teachers with formal preparation in health education or public health. The researchers drew from a rich data source – the 2006 SHPPS, a study made possible with support from the Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH), U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings support the argument that there is a need for formal teacher preparation in health and sexuality to ensure that more sexual health topics are covered in middle and high school classrooms. The researchers note that even among professionally-prepared educators, the percentage of those teaching about condoms or sexual identity/orientation proved alarmingly low in 2006. Little has occurred since then to suggest that the percentages have changed.

It is important to remember that in 2006, the year this data was gathered, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in public schools were at their peak in terms of funding and political support, especially at the federal level. Opposition to more comprehensive sexuality education was robust in 2006, with the result that the educational climate had chilled in many states and local school districts with regard to teaching potentially controversial sexual health topics. Although much progress has occurred since then to roll-back fear- and shame-based abstinence-only programs in schools, there is little evidence that teacher preparation trends since 2006 have improved as a result.

The researchers have confirmed another important factor – often driven by fiscal policies in school districts – affecting the delivery of sexuality education in public schools: stand-alone health classes are often sacrificed to combined classes that add PE or other topics (e.g. career counseling) and therefore reduce opportunities to teach more comprehensively.

Advocates for high-quality, effective sexuality education can use the findings of this study to argue for better policies and more resources to support the professional preparation of teachers. They can also use the findings to argue for keeping health classes and health teacher preparation separate from PE, and equal to PE in importance for the education and development of U.S. youth. 

[1] Rhodes DL, Kirchofer G, Hammig BJ, Ogletree RJ (2013). Influence of professional preparation and class structure on sexuality topics taught in middle and high schools. J School Health 83(5): 343-349. <>.