Michael New: FiveThirtyEight Analysis Misses the Mark on Which Sex Ed Programs Are Effective

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.

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Source: Christian Post