Evaluation of Sex Education Curricula: Measuring Up to the SIECUS Guidelines

Article excerpt

How effective is sexuality education in changing adolescent sexual risk-taking behaviors? For years now, the paucity of answers to this basic question has haunted sexuality and health educators, parents, school boards, program planners, and curriculum developers. And what explains such lack of adequate answers? With a few exceptions, most sexuality education curricula developed and implemented the past 20 years were not rigorously evaluated due to significant methodological difficulties.[1-7]

Major methodological problems faced by evaluators of sexuality education programs include (a) definition of evaluation variables, or "what is being measured or evaluated?," (b) lack of clearly defined program goals that could guide the definition of evaluation variables, (c) use of surrogate measures such as self-reported data, knowledge and beliefs about sexual activity, or birth rates to assess prevalence of unprotected intercourse, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases in school populations, (d) absence of theoretical evaluation frameworks, (e) poor research designs, (f) lack of adequate control groups, (g) inappropriate data analysis plans, and (h) lack of message or content evaluation. [2-4,6-8]

The issue of evaluating of sexuality education programs, however, is not restricted to problems mentioned above. If evaluation of program outcomes are rare and of dubious quality, analysis of program messages and content appear even less frequently in the scientific literature. Nevertheless, the few evaluations of message and contents have produced valuable and intriguing information. Kantor, (9) in reviewing the content of 11 abstinence-only curricula, found they contained significant gaps in information; medical inaccuracies; an exclusive focus on abstinence as the only appropriate choice for adolescents; and sexist, homophobic, and anti-choice biases. An evaluation of the Sex Respect curriculum revealed that the program is problematic for public school usage because, among other issues, it substitutes biased opinion for fact, lacks respect for cultural and economic differences, and presents only one side of controversial issues.[10]

Contents of the Teen-Aid curriculum reflect the same trend: omission of life-saving information and inclusion of inaccurate data, misleading statistics, and invalid substantiation.[11,12] An over-emphasis on abstinence that often results in omission of discussions about safer sex, failure to discuss human sexuality in a positive framework, and presentation of materials in an inadequate age-appropriate developmental manner were detected in an evaluation by Britton et al,[5] to assess state legislation, policy, curricula, and guidelines for HIV/AIDS prevention education programs for elementary and secondary school children in the U.S.

As evidenced by these few studies, revealing information about curricula can be obtained through message and content analysis. Precisely because program outcome evaluations are so scarce, information on a program's message is vital for the decision-making process of determining which curriculum to select when implementing a sexuality education course. This paper contributes to the decision-making process by presenting an evaluation of the message and content of 10 nationally known comprehensive sexuality education and HIV/AIDS prevention curricula/guidelines for grades 6-12. The basis for reviewing adequacy of these curricula and guidelines was the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, developed by the Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS).[13] These Guidelines were developed in 1990 by a Task Force comprised of 20 professionals in the fields of medicine, education, sexuality, and youth services, to provide a framework for developing curricula, textbooks, and programs as well as evaluating existing programs in human sexuality education. While the Guidelines are highly regarded by many educators and researchers, it must be noted that the Task Force members were volunteers, and therefore may not represent all health and sexuality professionals in their recommendations. …