Sept. 26, 2000 (Washington) -- Sex education classes in America's public schools may not be making the grade, at least in terms of what parents are expecting. Surprisingly, a new poll reveals that there is a substantial gap between what mom and dad think should be in the curriculum vs. what's actually taught.
"Contrary to common wisdom, when it comes to sex education, parents want it all, from abstinence to homosexuality," says Steve Rabin, JD, senior vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which sponsored the survey. The data were presented at a news conference here Tuesday.
Some 1,500 pairs of secondary school students and their parents were polled by phone in the analysis done last May. More than a thousand sex education teachers and 313 principals also were surveyed.
Reminiscent of the situation in the '80s TV show Family Ties, it appears from the survey that many parents are more liberal than their children. Among the findings, by 12th grade, nearly 90% of the children have gotten some sex education in school, and 70% would rate their learning experience as either excellent or good. But there is a striking gap between parent and student perceptions.
For instance, 38% more parents than students feel that discussions about being raped were crucial in the curriculum. As compared to kids, more than a third more adults believe that teaching about homosexuality is important. And more than their children, moms and dads also think that schools should talk about abortion, testing for pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and how to use condoms.
The study primarily included schools that use the so-called comprehensive approach, urging children to wait before having sex but at the same time offering guidance about birth control and safe sex. However, schools stressing abstinence also were included.
Even though the percentage of high schoolers having sex has declined slightly to about half, the Kaiser Family Foundation notes that contraceptive and condom use are both up. That may explain a slight decline in teen pregnancy over the decade. Still, some 4 million teens a year will get a sexually transmitted disease.
"Educators should teach what students need to know, not please the advocates or the politicians who scream the loudest," said Ramon Cortines, former chancellor of New York City public schools.
However, the conservative Family Research Council took issue with the new poll. Spokeswoman Heather Cirmo compared high school sex to risky behaviors like drug and alcohol abuse. "I think that it's sad that many of these parents have been duped into believing that comprehensive-based sex education is what's best for their children. I think that if you have a standard of abstinence until marriage set for teen-agers, they're going to live up to that," Cirmo tells WebMD.
Another new study, this one from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, finds that 23% of sex education teachers teach abstinence only as a way of preventing pregnancy and STDs, often at the expense of more explicit information. At the same time, the research, which included 4,000 teachers, found that most wanted to teach sex more thoroughly but are often told not to do so.
"It's irresponsible to deny students the information they need to make responsible decisions about sexual behavior," David Landry, MS, one of the study's authors tells WebMD.
Still another study in the current journal Family Planning Perspectives says the trend toward stressing abstinence has denied many students "accurate information on topics their teachers feel they need."