By Elizabeth Jarpe-Ratner, PhD, MPH, MST | October 16, 2019
Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health
Many prominent sex education advocates and organizations, including Advocates for Youth and ETR, have called for sex education that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities. We know that LGBTQ+ students in schools with inclusive curricula are more likely to report a greater sense of belonging in school as well as a lower risk of depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, and days missed due a lack of safety at school (see here and here, for example).
Although we know that inclusive programs are associated with these positive outcomes, how do we know that curricula intended to be inclusive are being implemented as intended? How do we know students experience the curricula as inclusive?
A recent study in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) shed light on these very questions. It aimed to examine how a program designed to be inclusive was being experienced by young people, what additional supports are needed by teachers, and what steps can be taken to ensure all students experience sexual health education as inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities.
This case study of CPS’s policy and curriculum implementation, with a focus on 9th grade, is described in a recent issue of Sex Education. The study examines fidelity practices among teachers and engagement from the youth perspective.
Chicago Public Schools Case Study of Policy and Curriculum
Dr. Jarpe-Ratner’s article about the study described in this post has just been published.
Jarpe-Ratner, E. (2019). How can we make LGBTQ+-inclusive sex education programmes truly inclusive? A case study of Chicago Public Schools’ policy and curriculum. Sex Education, 19(6), 1-17. doi: 10.1080/14681811.2019.1650335. Abstract here.
Twenty-nine 9th grade sex education class-periods were observed in four schools; curriculum fidelity and student engagement were assessed. Additionally, 12 teachers were interviewed about their implementation practices, and five student focus groups were conducted (with a total of 46 students) to assess student-reported engagement.
What We Found
Detailed findings can be found in the linked article. Overall findings from across the three data sources support the following five key recommendations.
1. Consistently include LGBTQ+ topics and identities throughout the entire curriculum.
The curriculum’s structure includes one lesson explicitly focused on LGBTQ+ identities that is repeated throughout the K-12 scope and sequence with increasing nuance and detail. All students and many teachers noted that this should be expanded upon and integrated throughout all lessons. Some teachers in the study noted going out of their way, in some cases at the urging of students, to find additional content to add to lessons. As one teacher described:
I also have a video that one of my students shared with me on the whole gender binary thing, and it’s actually a video done by students, it’s won some awards... [After showing the videos in class] I had like two students that wrote me a letter saying, “Thank you… I didn’t feel excluded” –Teacher #12
The lack of explicit inclusion undergirding the entire curriculum can serve to exclude students and send the message that LGBTQ+ identities are of only marginal importance. The CPS curriculum is currently being revised and LGBTQ+ topics and identities are now being included much more explicitly throughout each lesson.
2. Weave a more holistic discussion of sexuality throughout the curriculum.
Students and teachers shared their ideas about what content was lacking throughout the curriculum. Students and some teachers agreed that topics such as emotional health and trauma, readiness for sexual activity, acknowledgment of sexual pleasure and descriptions of a variety of forms of sex, including between partners of all different identities, must all be included. As one student shared:
I feel like just talking about how all the different ways like people could have sex because they didn't talk about sex is for pleasure at all. …They mentioned sex for reproduction, that’s it. –Focus group #3
As others have argued, the exclusive focus on reproduction serves to ignore both the existence of LGBTQ+ identities and any sex between partners that cannot result in reproduction. Students resoundingly stated that the message needs to be that healthy sexuality encompasses so much more than reproduction and pregnancy prevention. The new curriculum is being revised to include explicit discussion of pleasure as related to sexual activity. Again, as others have argued, a holistic discussion of sexuality involves the acknowledgement of multiple intersecting dimensions of identity including racial/ethnic identity, familial identity, cultural and/or spiritual identity, as well as dimensions not only of physical health but also of social, emotional, and mental health and how all of these intersect and influence how we understand ourselves sexually.
3. Include holistic information about identity development, and normalize the many different ways of being and pathways to get there.
Students in this study requested more information about identity development. They suggested that it be stressed that identity development is an important part of adolescence and that it continues through adulthood. As one student suggested, “There are many different ways of being and none is ‘normal.’”
Students requested greater acknowledgement of the coming out process and gender transition processes. They asked that asexuality and intersex identities be included and acknowledged. Students who identified as heterosexual and/or cisgender agreed that this was important. They want to be better-equipped to support friends and family through such processes, and to use inclusive and supportive language more generally. These concepts are being included in the high school lessons in the newly revised curriculum.
4. Create a safe classroom space.
Students in this study described their strong beliefs that sexual health education teachers have the responsibility to ensure all students feel safe and supported. Many teachers in the study also claimed this to be their responsibility. However, some expressed their fear that by either addressing or not addressing comments, laughter, and so on, they might exacerbate the stigma felt by some students known or perceived to identify as LGBTQ+.
Teachers identified their need for more support in navigating these sensitive situations. Many agreed it is essential sex education be taught by an instructor who truly supports students and can create a safe environment and model respect towards all people. CPS’s sexual health education instructor training has been adapted to include more time spent on how to address a range of topics perceived by teachers to be sensitive.
5. Provide teachers with more support.
Finally, and related to previous recommendations, students and teachers agreed that more training, support and guidance is needed in order to ensure that teachers are able to integrate the above recommendations. For example, as this teacher described:
For a guy like me… I’m a high school jock, I’m a PE teacher... I don’t want to give information incorrectly… [The sex education instructor training] opened my eyes a lot. ... There are still gay slurs being used around school, and stuff like that… [the LGBTQ+ identities lesson] would probably be one of the most difficult lessons that I teach… because kids have strong beliefs about that. It’s hard to break that [homophobic beliefs]…. So more [information] for the teacher so they can have a stronger base of knowledge, and then they can bring it to the students. –Teacher #4
All of the teachers in this study requested such support. Students reported that many teachers did not have the expertise to present topics and navigate challenges to ensure safe spaces for all students. Again, the instructor training has been revised and will undergo further revisions once the curriculum update has been completed.
The teacher and student perspectives in this study complement calls to action for inclusivity with solid empirical evidence. There is a need for more expansive and fully integrated content throughout the curriculum, more intentional and explicit affirmation of LGBTQ+ identities, and additional support for teachers to successfully implement a more integrated curriculum. While CPS has utilized these findings to inform their curriculum revisions, this study serves as a model for the type of collaborative evaluation and monitoring necessary to ensure a curriculum is truly LGBTQ+ inclusive.
Elizabeth Jarpe-Ratner, PhD, MPH, MST, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Division of Healthy Policy and Administration and Core Faculty in the DrPH in Leadership Program in the School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.