The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
In 2016 TUSD created a citizen committee to recommend revisions of its “family life” curriculum, including sex education. The committee stalled and most members resigned. Last February the governing board voted to appoint additional members until June 1 and asked staff to deliver recommendations in June.
The recommendations were delayed but posted publicly on August 1. I appreciate the committee’s hard work and attempts to reach compromises. I also support most of the recommendations but think the curriculum as a whole is unready for adoption.
The proposals concerning relationship management, handling difficult situations, and improving information about disease are needed. These alone will fill much of the few hours allotted to teaching “family life.” The proposed curriculum also explicitly acknowledges that students’ self-identified sexual preferences do not all fit neatly into the traditional male/female dichotomy. I support that change. It is silly, and for some students pointlessly destructive, for the curriculum to pretend that they do not exist. We should welcome all students and, as educators, pass no judgments on their personal preferences.
The proposals unfortunately go further, under the mantra of offering “comprehensive” sex education. This goal is misplaced. TUSD (like other districts) does not teach comprehensive science, history, literature, etc. We no longer provide driver education, despite its life-saving importance. Indeed, we do not teach “comprehensive” anything. We inevitably make choices about what is most important.
Less than nine hours are allotted to the high school family life curriculum. After decades of constructing syllabuses for college courses, I think it will be impossible to teach, well, everything in the committee’s proposal.
Therefore, in practice, teachers will choose what to emphasize, and this reality feeds opponents’ concerns. A tiny element of the posted curriculum, such as “How is gender/sex/sexuality reflected in today’s media? Where and how does it not always align with societal expectations?” could become the vehicle for a long and politically loaded discussion that veers far from medical and relationship issues. This does not belong in a brief “family life” curriculum.
Becoming a battlefield in the culture wars does not promote TUSD’s overall goals of building enrollment and support for educational funding. It does not bring the community together.
There are also questions, some unrelated to sex, about whether material is age-appropriate. For example, the proposed seventh grade curriculum includes: “An individual’s gender includes gender identity (the gender someone identifies as) and outward masculine/feminine gender expression. These are based on socio-cultural constructs based on expectations, and stereotypes.”
Does a typical seventh grader have the training and intellectual fortitude to understand quickly the origins and role of “socio-cultural constructs”? Those two sentences could reasonably describe a one-semester college course. Indeed, is the quoted passage even “medically accurate” (another mantra of proponents)? I am no expert but assume that biology also plays a role in determining gender identity.
The proposals’ advocates emphasize that sex education must by law be “opt-in,” meaning that participation requires explicit parental consent. Yet this should not be an excuse for ignoring families’ concerns. A student who is not opted-in may face humiliation or social exclusion. This student also misses the entire curriculum, including parts that would help the student and which the family would support.
Finally, revisions to the family life curriculum should acknowledge the potential role of external resources. In 2018, The American Pediatric Association reported that 0.7% of teenagers self-identify as transgender. These students, like others with specific needs, can benefit from referral to external or internal resources (e.g. counselors). Specialized content providers may be more qualified than teachers who are hastily trained in an unfamiliar subject area.
The family life curriculum is important but also sensitive. The process has been long but that does not justify a rushed ending.
Mark Stegeman is a member of TUSD’s Governing Board and an associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona.