This fall, the website FiveThirtyEight.com ran a series of articles on the politics and policy of sex education in high schools. One article focused on sex education curricula at the elementary and middle school levels. Another explored why sex education is such a polarizing issue politically. However, the most interesting article they ran dealt with the efficacy of various sex education programs. This article was entitled “What Does Science Tell Us About Sex Ed?” and was authored by Christie Aschwanden.
The analysis Aschwanden presents is more thoughtful than most coverage of this contentious policy issue. A vast majority of the mainstream media coverage of sex education curricula consists of citing studies that purportedly show that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective and lamenting that high schools fail to invest more in contraception programs. To her credit, Aschwanden is more nuanced. She engages the academic research on sex education curricula. She acknowledges that many sex education programs fail to have any discernible effects on teen sexual activity. She also points out that programs that have shown some effectiveness are diverse in terms of both their length and their content.
That said, aspects of the FiveThirtyEight.com article are misleading. She pans abstinence programs as ineffective – though she does concede there is no evidence that such programs increase the risk of unprotected sex. However, Aschwanden never discusses the landmark 2010 study which appeared in the Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine. It analyzed over 600 African-American students in the sixth and seventh grades. It found that those students who received abstinence only sex education were significantly less likely to have engaged in sexual activity than separate control groups who either received instruction in safe sex or general health. This study received nationwide attention and was praised for its methodological rigor.
Furthermore, Aschwanden overstates the efficacy of current sex education curricula. She links to an April 2018 analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which identified 48 effective sex education programs. This is misleading for several reasons. First, Mathematica – who reviews sex education curricula on behalf of HHS – had to evaluate approximately 119 sex education programs to find 48 that met some measure of effectiveness. Second, to be deemed effective, only one study had to find that the program had some positive impact. Many of these programs were studied multiple times with mixed results. Indeed, 13 of the 48 programs deemed effective were found by at least one study to have no evidence of effectiveness. Finally, of the 41 programs deemed effective by HHS in 2017, only six demonstrated significant reductions in either pregnancy rates or birth rates.
Many programs deemed ineffective by Mathematica were funded by grants issued by the Obama-era Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPPP). This program funded sex education curricula that emphasized contraceptive use. Despite multiple HHS analyses demonstrating the poor track record of this program, it has received virtually no scrutiny from the mainstream media. Furthermore, during the Trump administration, HHS has received a great deal of criticism for their efforts to defund this program and redirect taxpayer dollars to sex education curricula with greater prospects for success. Overall, there is a good body of evidence which shows that programs designed to encourage contraceptive use among teenagers are ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. It is unfortunate that FiveThirtyEight.com failed to give the Obama-Era Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program the scrutiny it deserved.
Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor at The Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New