When Judy LoBianco first started teaching health education decades ago, she leaned into what she called the “shock value.”
LoBianco, now the supervisor of health and physical education for the Livingston public schools in New Jersey, remembers showing students videos of childbirth and the movie “Super Size Me,” a 2004 documentary about the negative health effects of fast food.
Over the past couple of decades, though, best practice has shifted, LoBianco said—away from trying to scare kids off behavior that carries any risk and toward an approach that emphasizes decisionmaking, risk management, and self-advocacy.
“It’s about building skills and giving them practice,” LoBianco said. “Because when kids feel confident in their skills, they’ll act in more healthy ways.”
But two states that have updated their standards to reflect this research-based shift are now facing pushback from a vocal group of critics.
In Illinois and New Jersey, where changes to health and sex education standards are rolling out this school year, the revisions have sparked outbreaks of fierce, pointed controversy—a backlash that sex education experts say targets LGBTQ youth and deliberately mischaracterizes the standards and their aims.
At school board meetings in New Jersey districts, opponents of the new standards have claimed that they show young children “sexually explicit” material and are “indocrinating” kids into “woke ideology.” In May, several members of the state board of education called for the standards to be reevaluated, a request that the full board and the acting education commissioner denied.
In Illinois, where districts are not required to provide comprehensive sex education, many school systems have chosen not to adopt the new standards.
Over the past year, the outcry has become a talking point for Republican politicians in these states and a headline issue for national conservative media outlets, which have denounced the standards’ gender inclusivity, contending that they introduce children to age-inappropriate material.
In a sense, this is a familiar story. Pitched debate about the scope of health classes isn’t a new phenomenon, said Nora Gelperin, the director of sex education and training at Advocates for Youth, a group that works for adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
Gelperin was one of the writers of the National Sex Education Standards, which Illinois has adopted. The national standards also influenced New Jersey’s guidelines.
But now, the focus of this pushback has shifted more forcefully toward anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, she said.
Sex education advocates linked this resistance to the anti-LGBTQ legislation that at least 15 states have considered or passed this legislative session. The most well-known of these laws, Florida’s, prevents teachers from instructing K-3 students about gender or sexuality. Other proposed legislation would limit how teachers can use students’ pronouns, restrict use of materials featuring LGBTQ characters or themes, or regulate clubs for LGBTQ students.
And the outrage about sex education has once again put a spotlight on schools’ instructional choices, a situation that some advocates fear could make educators hesitant to address certain topics altogether.
“I have no problem with someone deciding for their own child, but when you get out there and start hijacking the narrative for everyone else’s kid, that’s dangerous,” said LoBianco.
The changes in Illinois and New Jersey are part of an evolution in the field of sex education, said Eva Goldfarb, a professor of public health at Montclair State University. Goldfarb contributed to the most recent version of the National Sex Education Standards, published in 2020.
The guidelines were developed by the Future of Sex Education Initiative, a partnership between three groups that support comprehensive sex education: Advocates for Youth, Answer, and SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change. This version is an update from the 2011 edition, which 41 percent of school districts said they’d adopted as of 2016.
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, the big debate in schools was whether teachers should take an abstinence-only approach or whether they should provide information about how to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, Goldfarb said.
In response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, sex education advocates pushed for and won state-level mandates for prevention education, Goldfarb said.
Still, abstinence-only education has a strong foothold in U.S. schools. The federal government has offered funding for abstinence-only sex education since the 1990s, and funding levels increased during the Trump administration.
But research shows that when schools broaden the scope of sex education classes beyond abstinence or risk prevention—to discuss gender roles and identity, normalize sexual diversity, and focus on social and emotional skills—students can see better outcomes. A research review by Goldfarb and her colleague Lisa Lieberman of 30 years of studies found that this kind of approach—now generally known as comprehensive sex education—can lower anti-LGBTQ bullying, improve the skills that support healthy relationships, and reduce intimate partner violence.
“The goal is helping people to have the important, functional knowledge and skills and attitudes to make healthy decisions for themselves, to appreciate and enjoy their own bodies and sexuality, and to appreciate and respect the bodies of others as well,” Goldfarb said.
What does that mean in practice? Take a few examples from the National Sex Education Standards.
The standards still require schools to provide information about how to mitigate risk. By the end of 8th grade, for example, students should be able to identify different forms of contraception and STI prevention as well as develop a plan for eliminating or reducing the risks of sexual activity.
But the standards also aim to teach students how to seek out information and how to develop their own values. Eighth graders are expected to know how to find medically reliable sources on these topics and to identify factors that are important in deciding whether and when to engage in sexual behaviors.
A classroom assignment might ask students to practice research skills that they’ve learned, said LoBianco. For example, she said, she might divide students into groups and assign each to research a different sexually transmitted infection. As they conduct their research, students would have to evaluate the reliability of the sources they find.
The national standards spiral, covering topics like consent and healthy relationships, anatomy and physiology, gender identity and expression, and sexual health throughout successive grade levels. But that doesn’t mean that topics like STIs, sexual identity, and sexual violence are introduced right away.
Instead, the standards aim to build knowledge and skills sequentially. In 2nd grade, for instance, the national standards require that students can list medically accurate names for the body parts, including genitals, and that students can define “bodily autonomy” and personal boundaries.
The standards are learning goals—what students should know and be able to do. Districts and schools select, create, or purchase the curriculum and lessons they use to convey them.
Most parents have historically supported sex education that covers these kinds of topics.
In a 2017 survey of Democrats and Republicans, about 90 percent of parents supported classes that cover healthy relationships, STIs, birth control, and abstinence in high school; 78 percent of parents supported these subjects covered in middle school.
Parents in a 2012 study were less sure about elementary sex education but still mostly positive: About 90 percent were in favor of instruction on communication skills, about 65 percent supported anatomy instruction, and about 52 percent supported instruction about gender and sexual identity.
Now, a vocal group of parent activists and commentators has commandeered the national conversation. They claim that schools are “grooming” young children by discussing LGBTQ identity and providing information about sexual health.
The term “grooming” refers to the behavior of sexual predators, who develop inappropriately close relationships with child victims in order to isolate them and reduce the chance that they will report incidents. But as Education Week reported earlier this year, some conservative commentators have weaponized the word to falsely equate discussions about LGBTQ identity with sexual abuse, a development sociologists and others warn is dangerous.
In a recent C-SPAN interview, Tina Descovich, the co-founder of the right-wing group Moms for Liberty, said that the biggest concern reported from local chapters was “the oversexualization of children.”
“The National Sex Education Standards right now, they actually say in K-3 that they want to teach gender ideology, that children … by the time they reach 7 years old, should be able to understand completely that they could be a boy, or a girl, they could be neither or both. And a lot of parents just don’t want that discussed with their youngest children,” Descovich said.
But experts stressed that this is a misreading and that conversations about gender aren’t inherently sexual in nature.
The national standards say that 2nd graders should be able to “define gender, gender identity, and gender-role stereotypes,” as well as discuss how people express their gender and how stereotypes might limit behavior. In 5th grade, students are expected to “demonstrate ways to promote dignity and respect for all people.”
What this means in practice, said Goldfarb, is that teachers might explain to the youngest children that there aren’t “girl toys” or “boy toys” and that however kids want to express themselves is OK. The message, she said, is “we all get to feel good about ourselves and our bodies as we are.”
She attributes the “hysteria” she says activists are creating around gender identity to deeper fears about changing social mores and expansions of rights. “This is a moral panic that comes whenever society moves away from this patriarchal, Christian, white supremacist view of the way the world should be,” Goldfarb said.
Parents also regularly cite concerns about language and definitions, said Advocates for Youth’s Gelperin. For example, the national standards require that by 2nd grade, students know the medically correct terms for their genitals. By 8th grade, students should be able to define vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
“I think there’s this worry that if we say the words like ‘penis’ and ‘vulva’ and ‘anus,’ that’s going to be damaging for kids. And that’s just not the case,” Gelperin said. In fact, research suggests that teaching students accurate terms can help prevent child sexual abuse.
And standards for older students, on defining vaginal, oral, and anal sex, aren’t about providing a how-to guide, said LoBianco. Rather, the idea is to give students accurate information from a trusted source so that they’re not relying on Google searches and social media.
“Kids have 24/7, 365 access to information about their sexual health, and if no adult is intervening or providing info, they’re going to seek out information,” LoBianco said.
In LoBianco’s state of New Jersey, only a handful of districts have publicly opposed the standards. Sex education is mandatory, and department of education officials have said that they will penalize districts that don’t teach a curriculum that aligns to the new standards.
But some districts have put in place workarounds.
The East Hanover school district said that it plans to include some new lessons to meet the standards—but they’ll all be taught on the last day of school, according to local news reports.
And while all districts in the state must let parents opt students out of any sex education lessons, the Middletown Township school system is planning to require parents to opt in.
Considering all the controversy “swirling around,” the district wanted to be as transparent as possible with parents, said Kate Farley, the curriculum committee chair on the Middletown board of education.
In April, New Jersey state Sen. Holly Schepisi, a Republican, posted some sample materials on Facebook, saying that “some go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children further.” The post ignited a media firestorm and brought fresh pushback from GOP state lawmakers.
It illustrated the confusion between standards and curriculum: The lesson plans Schepisi posted aren’t mandatory.
And in Middletown, parents and community members thought that some of the lessons they’d seen would be required. Or, Farley said, they had heard that there was a specific “gender lesson” in 2nd grade or that the district was planning to teach kindergartners about sex. None of that is true, said Farley.
So, the district selected a set of materials for K-5 and posted all of them online for parents to review. “What you see is exactly what you get,” Farley said. “There’s just no room for any sort of question about what their child will be exposed to.”
Given this intense scrutiny and social-media misinformation, Gelperin suggested that schools take a similar approach to transparency, and make information about what curriculum they’ll be using readily available.
Schools can also hold family nights when parents can come in to look at materials and ask questions, she said.
Teachers and school leaders can always come back to the “why,” said LoBianco—that schools are giving students information and skills that they can use to protect themselves and feel confident in their identities.
“When you explain this to the most reasonable of parents, then they start to understand,” LoBianco said. “If there’s one thing that parents want their children to be, it’s healthy and safe.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 2022 edition of Education Week as The Sex Ed. Battleground Heats Up (Again). Here’s What’s Actually in New Standards