New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently mandated comprehensive sexuality education be taught in all New York City public schools starting this fall. The mandate extends the usual semester of “health” education in high schools, requiring that one semester of age-appropriate sex education is taught in sixth or seventh grade, and another more mature semester is taught in ninth or tenth grade.
Mayor Bloomberg’s progressive mandate is inspired by a broader initiative to improve the lives of black and Latino teenagers who are disproportionately affected by unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Research shows that black and Latino teenagers have less access to sexuality education, indicating a correlation between the absence of sexuality education and failed family planning.
The Bloomberg administration hopes that increasing access to sexuality education will help reduce teen pregnancy and the ensuing poverty that frequently defines teenage parenting.
To its credit, the mandate itself addresses many contentious issues surrounding sex education. It provides age-appropriate sex education at both the middle and high school levels, addressing the common problem that many students don’t receive sex education until after they have had their first sexual experience. In addition, stressing and publicizing the content of “age-appropriate” sex education counters abstinence-only hysteria and smear campaigns that frame sex educators as heathens who are teaching kindergarteners how to have sex.
Moreover, the mandate provides sex educator training. While many “sex ed” teachers in the United States are otherwise untrained health or physical education teachers, the Bloomberg administration is working with the Department of Education to provide mandatory training for all new sex education teachers. Research shows that teacher training and comfort with openly discussing sexuality are not only positively correlated, but also foster trust and discussion between students and educators.
On the surface, Bloomberg’s sex education mandate seems to have it all—teacher training, age-appropriate advice on decision-making and sexual health, as well as essential information on accessing and using contraceptives. However, there is one essential element missing: a program monitoring system, i.e., accountability.
In 1982, New Jersey became one of the first states to adopt a statewide mandate for comprehensive sexuality and HIV education. Every public high school is required to provide unbiased information on sexual health and disease prevention, making New Jersey a model for progressive sexuality education. However, in 2005, Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, now the executive director of the Rutgers University-based organization Answer, did an independent research project examining how high schools in New Jersey were teaching sexuality education, given the mandate. She was stunned at the number of schools that claimed not to teach sex ed—the mandate notwithstanding. Some schools lacked the funding to teach and promote “extraneous” sexuality education programs. Other programs were eliminated due to a vocal parent or school board member who complained until the program was shutdown.
Regardless of how the classes were evaded, New Jersey’s experience shows that a “mandate” is largely meaningless for enforcing sex education in the classroom in the absence of any additonal accountability.
New York City’s sex education mandate is an important step towards political acceptance of comprehensive sex education. However, though it provides the manifesto for an ideal sex education program, it offers no system for accountability. As education budgets are being cut, “extraneous” programs—such as sex education—are often the first victims on the chopping block. In this economic climate, public schools, particularly the lower-income institutions in Bloomberg’s targeted communities, are more likely concerned with retaining funding for academic programs rather than whether or not they are offering state “mandated” sex education.
New York City public schools have both the public and political support necessary to make this difference. Parents overwhelmingly support sex education being taught in public schools, and the new mandate provides schools with the curricula and training they need to implement comprehensive programs. But will New York City schools be held accountable?