The Obama administration is placing a solid focus on sexual education. Yeah, we’ve been hearing this from pretty much every politician for years, but there is a new shift in thought that, while “abstinence should be the core message of any federally funded program,” the federal government is going to explore more comprehensive sex ed programs.
This year’s federal budget is devoting more than $114 million to what it calls an “evidence-based approach.” Abstinence-only programs will still be funded, but most of the money will go to communities that choose programs that have shown they reduce teen pregnancy.
Few have more experience with teen sexuality education and adolescent development than Michael Carrera, a well-known expert in the field. His interest in preventing teen pregnancy goes back to his experiences as a junior high school teacher in the Bronx 50 years ago.
Today’s adolescents have already engaged in many of the behaviors described as risky. Kids see little consequence for their actions, either parental punishment or the lessons doled out by life—teen pregnancy, STDs, and sex being used as a leverage in abusive relationships. Instead, fifteen-year-olds roll their eyes while their teacher demonstrates how to put a condom on a banana.
Carrera’s plan is one of nearly thirty approved for funding because there is data to support the idea that children under this plan are more likely to put off having sex:
Students begin the Carrera program at a fairly early age. After a series of failures, Carrera says, he discovered that if you wait until children are teenagers, it’s too late. Older boys and girls in the program had not only already begun to have sex, but had also already developed pretty hardened views about relationships and the roles of males and females that were hard to break down.
Carrera’s sexuality education classes are intended to be age-appropriate. Older kids at the Academy, for example, study diagrams of male and female anatomy and get frank explanations about reproductive functions and relationships.
From working a long time in poor communities, Carrera also learned that he couldn’t just deal with poverty and sexuality if he wanted to reach them. The young people who came to the program had other issues — with family, peers and self-image.
Yes! This is brilliant! Sex does not exist in a vacuum, which is sadly the message we’re currently sending. Talking about sex in terms of everything from family to friends to community to self-image makes it relevant to kids … and sending the message that sex is a natural and normal part of life when you are ready is a message that each child needs to receive.
Carrera’s program doesn’t stop at the hypothetical, though. Instead, it forces students to open their eyes to the future, at least a little bit.
Recent studies have shown that not all teen pregnancies are unplanned. Thus the program goes beyond sexuality to make young people aware of what options are available in life besides having children. That’s why Carrera’s program has a job club where students learn about the world of work, get a stipend and keep a bank account. There are also opportunities for self-expression through music, art and athletics, which are activities they can pursue for a lifetime — and activities that are known to delay sex.
And there is actual evidence to back this up.
Susan Philliber, an independent evaluator, has seen the difference between teenagers in Carrera’s New York City program and other teenagers in the city. Her team followed them for four years through the high-risk years of high school. In the Carrera group, 10 percent of the girls got pregnant; in the control group, it was 22 percent.
“That’s more than double the percentage — and impressive,” Philliber says.
The program also offers comprehensive medical, dental and mental health care that includes reproductive health care. Philliber says a girl in the program is not only more likely to use contraceptives, but also use protection against sexually transmitted infections.
The Brookings Institute’s Ron Haskings, former advisor to George W. Bush, respects Carrera’s work but questions the follow-through on the parts of the communities.
“Imagine the organization and the funding that you have to have to do all the things Carrera does in his original model,” Haskin says. Communities would have to supply help with schoolwork, organized athletics, field trips, college prep and more. “I would think there’ll be some communities without adequate resources — it’ll be very difficult for them to implement all aspects of the Carrera program.”
So, Obama’s support of the Carrera program—fair or foul?