Sex ed gets an update in state’s new curriculum framework
New framing on abstinence, gender, and sexual orientation issues
ABSTINENCE IS A WORD that appears frequently in the state’s current curriculum framework for health education, which was released nearly 25 years ago in 1999.
The 1999 framework, a guide for what should be taught in schools across the state, urges educators to “explain the benefits of abstinence, postponing sexual behavior, and setting limits on sexual behavior.” It also recommends methods for preventing pregnancies, “including abstinence,” but includes no direct mention of contraception.
Gov. Maura Healey unveiled an updated health and physical education curriculum framework on Wednesday that also mentions abstinence, but with more neutral language presenting it as one of several options for pursuing “healthy sexual behavior.” The options include “abstinence, delay, use of contraception, and giving and obtaining consent.” The framework also urges teaching respect for those who practice abstinence.
There are lots of other differences between the new and old frameworks – on mental health, personal safety, dating safety, nutrition, and fitness.
“Describe the differences between biological sex and gender identity, and explain how one’s outward behavior or appearance does not define one’s gender identity or sexual orientation,” the new framework recommends. “Describe a range of ways people may express their gender and that some people’s gender identity (how they think about themselves) matches others’ expectations about what their bodies look like on the outside and others do not.”
At a press conference in the State House library, Healey, who is the first openly gay governor of Massachusetts, applauded the drafters of the new framework. “They recognize gay, queer, trans student identities and needs,” she said. “That’s important and it’s not something we’re going to shy away from. Our LGBTQ+ students face higher risks of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and suicidality.”
Alia Cosolito, a rising senior at Old Rochester Regional High School who uses the pronouns they and them, has been active in pushing for updating the curriculum framework, in part because students and even teachers at the school are in the dark on so many fronts. “Our education system has been so lacking up to now,” Cosolito said at the press conference.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education began working on the new framework in 2018 but got sidetracked when COVID came along in 2020. The framework was finally completed this year with the help of a large group of expert advisors. It goes before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education next week and then out for public comment. (CommonWealth was the first to report the new health and physical education curriculum was being developed.)
The framework is a guide for local school districts, but actual implementation is voluntary at the local level. Healey and Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler indicated they believe the framework will gain wide acceptance across the state, but it’s unclear whether that will happen.The long delay in updating the curriculum reflects a reluctance to deal with the issue. The long delay also spurred the Legislature to take action, but that effort also failed to gain traction. The Healthy Youth Act passed the Senate four times, but never made it out of the House.
Senate President Karen Spilka, who attended Healey’s press conference, said the new educational framework reflects the values held by Massachusetts residents. “Our state leaders will never be afraid to say gay and our students and educators shouldn’t be afraid to either,” she said.