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Currently Reading: The FiveThirtyEight Blog Looks at Sex Ed

Currently Reading: The FiveThirtyEight Blog Looks at Sex Ed

By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | September 13, 2018
Senior Editor, ETR

I love science. I like the wonky part of research, and I really like seeing the practical applications. That’s why I was so pleased to see the FiveThirtyEight blog offer a series on the science of sex ed. These folks know their numbers!

Their three-part series begins with an exploration of the science of teaching sex ed in schools (What Does Science Tell Us About Sex Ed?). “It’s clear,” they tell us, “that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to deliver sex ed. But researchers are closing in on some of the essential components.”

The post points out that this includes work done by ETR researchers (including this article in the Journal of Adolescent Health), along with the 17 Characteristics of Effective Programs, developed by ETR and Healthy Teen Network. (You can find a tool to assess the Characteristics in a program here). If you’re interested in this data, I also highly recommend Emerging Answers 2007, by the late Dr. Douglas Kirby (formerly Senior Research Scientist at ETR).

But Wait! There’s More!

The second post in FiveThirtyEight’s series looks at aspects of sexual and reproductive health that go beyond sexuality. These include puberty, bullying, safety and respect (Sex Ed Is About More Than Just Sex). Many students begin learning about puberty in middle school—“Too late,” says expert Lisa Crockett. For example, most girls are showing visible breast development by fourth grade. Puberty lessons in sixth or seventh grade are…too late!

This post includes suggestions from ETR’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Karin Coyle, that students learn about positive relationships. Learning can start early by focusing on healthy non-sexual relationships. Here’s a post from our own blog where Dr. Coyle describes some productive ways to “disrupt our thinking” on sexuality education.


The third post from FiveThirtyEight is a chat among their science and health writers (What Arguments About Sex Ed Are Really About). They explore arguments about sex education that have plagued our nation for decades and discuss what these controversies look like today. I wish I could jump in on that conversation! Maggie Koerth-Baker asserts that the decline in teen pregnancy over the past decade “probably has nothing to do (or very little to do) with sex ed curricula.” I'm concerned this mistakenly leaves readers with the impression that sex ed doesn’t make a difference.

Yes, all kinds of theories explain the teen birth rate decline—many having nothing to do with sex ed. However, there is also ample and well-designed research showing an impact from evidence-based programs (see the American Academy of Pediatrics clinical report on sexuality education here, and Advocates for Youth’s summary of evidence here).

The Take-Home? Funding!

For me, one of the most important take-homes from these posts is something that’s never explicitly stated. We need to see robust federal funding for teen pregnancy and STD prevention programs. We need grants to continue the research that is helping us understand more about what works in these efforts. And we need a long-view, science-informed strategy to sustain our current advances and achieve even greater success in the future.


Marcia Quackenbush is Senior Editor at ETR. She can be reached at

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