Sex Education: Who is Teaching the Teachers?

by James L. Malfetti & Arline M. Rubin - 1967

Sex education still strikes many people as so controversial a subject, they find it hard to realize that programs are already in the making. The authors are concerned with roadblocks to their implementation and with the pervasive disagreements over the objectives and content of sex education.

Sex education still strikes many people as so controversial a subject, they find it hard to realize that programs are already in the making. Processor Malfetti and Miss Rubin are concerned with roadblocks to their implementation and with the pervasive disagreements over the objectives and content of sex education. They discuss a survey of teachers colleges which found that very few were thinking of preparing teachers to handle this difficult subject; and they come up with some recommendations teacher educators can scarcely afford to ignore.

There are indications that sex education in the schools will increase. Educational organizations, administrators and teachers support a strong trend toward classroom instruction.

The United States Office of Education has stated that it "will support. . . sex education as an integral part of the curriculum from pre-school to college and adult levels. . . .’1 The New York State Department of Education "is preparing a sex education-family life curriculum for grades 7-12 that will be tried in pilot schools next year."2 The Board of Education of the City of New York has approved a policy statement calling for " ‘a suitable program of instruction for all pupils in appropriate grades in the area of family living' including sex education."3 The National Association of Independent Schools will "collect all available information on the subject and distribute the material to its 750 member schools to 'start people thinking'."4 In a recent survey of school board members and superintendents 84 percent approved of offering sex education programs in the schools.5 Eighty percent of a cross section of the nation's public school classroom teachers have stated that sex education should be part of the secondary school curriculum.6

Other professional groups publicly associated with sex education have also gone on record favoring it in the schools. Various medical organizations suggest the need for programs and have provided curriculum materials.7, 8 Many clergymen have agreed that such programs should be given serious consideration.9, 10

In addition, the general public seems to want sex education in the schools. A Gallup Poll recently revealed that adults favor such programs by more than three to one.11 A state-wide group identifying educational needs found that parents put sex education at the top of the list.12 Local units of the Parent-Teachers Association and other school-community groups have been scheduling meetings on sex education at an ever-increasing rate. In a recent four-month period the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), an organization founded to give leadership in sex education, received more than 3,000 requests for curriculum materials.13 At the present writing SIECUS is overwhelmed with requests for speakers and consultants for school and community groups interested in initiating or improving sex education.

It should be made clear, however, that despite the increasing attention to sex education not everyone is for it. Nor should it be claimed that the school instead of (or in addition to) the home and the church is the place for it. Forceful arguments and suggestions relating to these considerations have been presented by others. Nevertheless indications like the foregoing suggest that sex education programs will receive more emphasis in the schools. The concern here is with the readiness of the schools to assume this responsibility.

There are two major roadblocks to the successful implementation of school programs. First, the meaning of sex education is unclear and so are expectancies from sex education programs.14 Second, qualified teachers are in short supply.15


As the authors have found on several occasions, groups generally supporting the concept of sex education in the school are often divided on questions of content and objectives—what should be taught to whom, by whom and when. Expectancies range widely—from hoping that the students will gain a little information about human reproduction, to believing that they will engage only in marital sexual relations and thus avoid problems like venereal disease and premarital pregnancy.

The authors have attempted to obtain the outlines of all of the school-based sex education programs known to them. At the few elementary schools giving it, sex education is usually taught by a generalist (classroom) teacher and consists primarily of a brief description of male and female reproductive systems (perhaps human, perhaps not), some indication of how they unite for conception, and a vague description of the development and delivery of the child (or rabbit or chicken). At the junior and senior high schools sex education is reproduction education (this time human) with an emphasis on menstruation (for girls) and venereal disease. The teaching may be fragmented or integrated into different subjects covered in different courses such as biology, health education, home economics, or in isolated lectures by a physician or the school nurse.

It is unusual for a high school syllabus to provide for discussions of sexual outlets like masturbation, homosexuality, premarital relations, or of standards for sexual conduct, except in very general terms. When these subjects are included, the objectives and the relation of content to the objectives seem particularly diffuse or limited.


Hardly anyone knows what sex education should be, in the sense that he can support with conclusive evidence what should be taught to whom and when; nevertheless there are some growing signs of general agreement. A group of high school seniors who systematically outlined a program were "looking for meaningful relationships in which sex can play a part. . . ."16 One authority concluded that biologic and physiologic aspects of sex education are only a fraction of a whole program, and for early adolescents are less important than social and psychologic aspects.17 In addition, the literature tends to reflect a downgrading of "facts" alone and more statements like, "In the end, what we are talking about is how people relate to each other; this is the essence of sexuality, the relationships a person forms in all his comings and goings, not just in strictly sexual ones."18 Sexuality is differentiated from concepts of sex education limited to such things as human reproduction and venereal disease, and referred to as the total person functioning as a man or woman.19 Such philosophy is converted into courses called character education, human relations, etc., one of whose objectives is responsible expression of sexuality, if not responsible expression of sexuality in marriage. There is an increasing number of such courses at the high school level. It is even recommended that they begin as early as the elementary grades.20

Whatever the efficacy of present programs or trends, clearly they suggest the wisdom of concerted action by interested groups to define sex education and to identify its objectives. Supporters of a sex education program should know what it is and what they expect from it. Teachers should understand the objectives toward which they are expected to work.


These trends may also aggravate an immediate problem. There is a shortage of persons equipped to teach even the most rudimentary facts of human reproduction. But what shall we do if value structures are to be part of sex education? Authorities have suggested that imparting information alone has little effect on values, and that to influence these a grasp of special methodologies is important.21 It has been the experience of the authors that prospective sex education teachers generally feel more competent to learn and pass along facts of human reproduction than to lead a discussion of values and responsibilities of sexuality. In fact some are overwhelmed by the latter prospect.

If sex education is to be taught in the schools, who is going to teach it? Few sex education specialists are currently employed by private or public schools; the job seems to fall to the teachers specializing in other subjects. Most of the sex teaching in elementary schools is done by the classroom teacher. In the high schools, aspects of sex education may be taught in biology, home economics, health education or in special lectures by the school nurse or physician.22 Seldom are any of these people trained more than incidentally.23

Are classroom teachers temperamentally suited to give instruction in sex education? The predominance of single females at the elementary school level and the stereotype of the "old maid" teacher may be problems here. All considered, what are the prospects that teachers will be an improvement over other sources of sex information and misinformation?

In the face of those unanswered questions it is, nevertheless, abundantly clear that the shortage of qualified teachers is critical. In two studies, the lack of qualified teachers was the most frequently given reason for not offering a sex education program.24, 25 Junior and senior high school administrators have attributed the absence of sex education programs to an inadequate supply of qualified teachers;26 teachers themselves have agreed. Students in teacher-preparation courses have repeatedly asserted that no amount of theological, community, or parental approval of sex education in the schools will benefit students if those teaching it are unfamiliar with the subject matter, unable to verbalize comfortably, or ill at ease.

If the present supply of teachers of sex education is inadequate, what of the future? How many teacher-preparation institutions are doing their parts? A survey conducted by the Information Center on Population Problems (and in which one of the authors was involved) is revealing in this respect.


A questionnaire was sent to chief administrative officials at each of the 734 teacher-preparation institutions listed in the 1966 Directory of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; 250 (34%) institutions responded, representing at least one large and one small institution in each state except Alaska. Supplementary efforts follow-up mailings, phone calls, personal visits, checks against catalog copy-confirmed the accuracy of information provided by the institutions which had already responded, but produced few additional responses. It became evident that institutions which had programs to prepare teachers in sex education were more likely to respond and the results are biased in that direction. There were:

1. Only 21 (8%) of the 250 responding institutions offer a specific course or courses intended to prepare teachers to teach sex education; the rest do not.

The tides and descriptions of the courses reported by the 21 institutions suggest considerable differences of content and emphasis: social hygiene, school and community health, healthful living, sex education and family life, human development, methods of teaching health, fundamentals of sex education, human biology, human reproduction and sexual development, psychology of adolescence, courtship and marriage. Virtually all of the courses include subject matter relating to human reproduction, venereal disease, sexual outlets (masturbation, premarital relations, etc.) and standards for sexual conduct. Some also emphasize methods and materials for sex education, family planning, preparation for marriage, interpersonal relationships, the family as a social institution, language and culture as forces in sex education.

Of the 21 institutions offering courses, 12 give one course, seven give two courses and two give three. About half of the courses are designed for the secondary education specialist in health education, biology or home economics (family life); the other half are planned for the elementary school generalist; some courses are intended for both groups.

Approximately 60,000 students are enrolled in the teacher-preparation programs of the 21 institutions. The percentage of students who take one or more of the courses ranges from one to 100, but is most usually either less than 2 percent or 100 percent. The courses are frequently required; if not, they are seldom taken. An approximate estimate based on enrollment percentages given in the survey is that a total of 15,000 (25%) students prior to graduation will take one or more of the courses intended to prepare them to teach sex education.

2. The 229 responding institutions which do not offer courses intended to prepare teachers to teach sex education were asked if they included subject matter related to the content of sex education in other courses. As sex education can mean so many different things, the question divided the content into human reproduction, venereal disease, sources of sexual outlet (masturbation, premarital relations, etc.) and standards for sexual conduct (ethics, morals, responsibilities, a code of sexual behavior). One hundred seventy (74%) of the 229 institutions offer one or more courses with some content in one or more of the indicated areas; 59 (26%) reported that they do not.

3. Of the 170 institutions offering courses: 153 (90%) give those with content in human reproduction, 132 (78%) in standards for sexual conduct, 122 (72%) venereal disease, 109 (64%) sources of sexual outlet; 89 (52%) give courses with content in all four areas, 39 (23%) in three, 27 (16%) in two, 15 (9%) in one. The 170 institutions offer a total of 431 courses. (The range is one to thirteen, the average is between two and three, and the most common offering is two.) Of these, respondents indicated that 411 (20 were not classified) include one or more of the content areas indicated above; 97 (24%) include four areas, 74 (18%) three areas, 96 (23%) two areas, 144 (35%) one area. These data reveal two trends: a considerable block of institutions gives a small number of courses each covering all four content areas; another block gives a large number of courses each covering only one area.

The titles and descriptions of the courses reported by the 170 institutions vary widely; while health education, physical education, family life, home economics and biology appear frequently in the titles, courses from the following disciplines also are included—anatomy, cytology, embryology, ethics, genetics, microbiology, philosophy, physiology, psychology, religion, sociology, theology, zoology.

Approximately 207,000 students are enrolled in the teacher-preparation programs of the 170 institutions. While the percentage of students who take one or more of the courses ranges from 1 percent to 100 percent, the latter is most common as many of the courses are required. An estimate based on enrollment percentages given in the survey is that a total of 149,000 (72%) students previous to graduation will take one or more of the courses relating to the content of sex education, but which are not intended specifically to prepare them to teach sex education.

4. The 229 institutions which do not offer courses intended to prepare teachers to teach sex education were asked if they had plans to give such courses in the future. Six (3%) said yes; 233 (97%) said no, or did not reply. Of the six who said yes, four had plans to begin such a course within one year, one within three years, and one is indefinite.

5. The survey further asked if present curricula included courses with content in world populaton problems, family planning, and modern contraception. Of the 250 responding institutions, 170 (68%) offer one or more courses. Of these, 161 (95%) give those relating to world population problems, 120 (70%) to family planning, 62 (36%) to modern contraception. Of the approximately 345,000 students enrolled in the 250 responding institutions, it is estimated that a total of 69,000 (20%) will take one or more of such courses.

6. The final question asked how many members of the annual graduating class were prepared to teach sex education. Of the 250 responding institutions, 180 (72%) gave usable answers. The combined estimated total for the 180 institutions is 7,480 (range 0-743, with zero most common), or approximately 10% of the teachers graduating from the institutions each year. This figure is probably generous; while occasionally an institution which seemed to offer courses equipping a sizeable fraction of graduates to teach sex education reported a relatively small number as so equipped, some of the institutions indicating the largest numbers and percentages offered little support for their estimates through other data reported on the survey form. Furthermore, although a few respondents sometimes commented on other questions on the survey form, here considerable of them stated that they were not quite sure how they should judge the readiness of graduates to teach sex education. Some went so far as to say they did not believe any single course (or even series of courses) would prepare a teacher adequately; they felt that personality and other factors were involved. One respondent (whose institution had a relatively comprehensive program) revealed that he often asked graduates if they felt prepared to teach sex education, and that one in 35 said yes.

7. Of the 250 responding institutions, 115 (46%) accepted the invitation to comment on any aspect of the survey. Where appropriate, comments have been incorporated in the results and in the discussion which follows.


Several limits of the survey should be repeated-that only 34 percent of the institutions responded; that institutions which already had programs were more likely to respond. The results are therefore biased in that direction. The data are gross and approximate and in no way should be regarded as definitive.

Especially in view of the reporting bias, it is discomforting to learn that only 21 (8%) of the responding institutions offer courses intended to prepare teachers to teach sex education, and that only 6 (3%) of those which do not offer such courses plan to initiate them. One might ask, "From where will the teachers come?"

Perhaps part of the answer is suggested by the finding that 170 (74%)) of the 229 responding institutions akeady offer some courses associated in one way or another with sex education. If this much substance is akeady available it might take only a reorganization of curriculum and an added emphasis on how to teach sex education, to equip a large number of prospective teachers for a meaningful role.

But there are cautions. The wide range of course titles and disciplines involved seem to suggest that such reorganization might be a mammoth task, and easier to apply at institutions which offer few courses covering several areas, than at those which offer several courses covering few areas. There is also disagreement whether sex education should be taught in a single course or in a variety. Some respondents feel that the substance of sex education should not be isolated from the disciplines from which it derives—biology, home economics, etc.—while others feel that if it is not isolated it is fragmented and receives inadequate attention. Perhaps a compromise position is suggested by those who believe that the substance should be taught in disciplinary contexts, but that all who plan to teach sex education should be brought together in a methods course.

It is also discomforting to find that in responding institutions only an estimated (and a very generously estimated) 10% of graduates are prepared to teach sex education in the opinion of the administrators. The comments of respondents to this question are revealing. The problem of how to determine adequacy of preparation was raised repeatedly. Some suggested that courses of a routine nature are not enough to equip teachers, that the personality of the teacher, his anxieties about his own sexuality, his ease in dealing with terminology and subject matter, are all related to his ability to teach sex education. They also revealed their lack of clarity about the objectives of sex education, and whether the teacher should be related to all of them. They wondered about the role of other school personnel—nurse, physician, guidance counselor. They felt that there were so many unanswered questions, including who should do what, that this not only interfered with their ability to decide whether graduates were equipped to teach sex education, but also with their ability to build meaningful programs to prepare teachers. Some administrators regretted that they are doing so little, and would like to do more, but find the whole matter confusing and do not know where to begin.


Nevertheless, there are increasing pressures for schools to teach sex education. Sex apparently will become a subject matter whether the schools are ready or not. Most members of present teaching staffs are not up to the task, and little is being done to improve the situation. Hence an appreciable lag will exist between the decision to include sex education in the curriculum and the provision of qualified teachers. But some modest beginning steps may help lead the way out of the dilemma.

1. All teachers (in fact, all administrative and guidance personnel as well) are associated with sex education because they associate with students, who are concerned with sex whether taught or not. In view of this, they should better understand the subject matter of sex education—including for example male and female reproductive systems and their uniting for conception; prenatal development and birth of a child; family planning (contraception, fertility); psychosexual development; sources of sexual outlet; sexuality in the framework of the total man-woman relationship; the moral issues in sexuality. The subject matter should of course be modified periodically on the basis of utility to students. It would not necessarily have to be given in a formal course; the teacher might study on his own under supervision, and perhaps be required to pass a knowledge test.

2. With knowledge of the subject matter established, teachers should take part in workshops and group discussions intended to help them to understand the nature of their own sexual needs and attitudes,27 and the role these play within their lives. As a result, they may come to terms with their unresolved sexual anxieties, where they exist, or at least be aware of such fears and anxieties so as not to pass them on to their students. If these are not "worked through," open discussion with students may not be realized, since students have a way of sensing a teacher's anxiety.28 In this regard, a unique experiment, which seems to have potential, brought together high school students, university students and teachers for the explicit purpose of encouraging communication on questions of sex. The discussion techniques were such as to facilitate more open communication about sex between adults and youths. The adults got "a new view of themselves and of youth." The students felt that their experience had "paved the way to approach other adults at other rimes and places."29

3. Teachers who might be assigned specifically to sex education programs should receive special training in content, methods and evaluation in the teaching of sex education appropriate to the age levels of students. Curriculum aids should be called to their attention. Some training in special methodologies is also important, particularly if education is to deal with values and decisions about sexual matters.

4. New or prospective teachers should serve internships with experienced teachers, or meet with them in workshops to discuss problems and techniques.

5. Preservice and inservice training experiences to accomplish the foregoing recommendations should be instituted or expanded by teacher-preparation institutions.

6. Teacher institutions should encourage cooperation between specialists in curriculum research and in child growth and development in order to identify the substance and methods of sex education for which a child is ready at different age levels.

7. These institutions should work with school systems and appropriate parental and community groups30 to clarify objectives and content of sex education for different age levels, and the means to be used to achieve objectives. Unless, the objectives, content and methods are clear, the complex subject of sex education will be both confused and damned, and teachers assigned to it will be limited seriously.

The conclusion is clear. With all the agitation directed toward sex education in the schools it is time for teacher-preparation institutions to face up to the question of who is going to teach the teachers. Under the circumstances their complacency is at once remarkable and unfortunate.

1 U.S. Commissioner of Education. "Office of Education Policy on Family Life Education and Sex Education," proclamation signed by Harold Howe, August 30, 1966, p. 1-4.

2 Nina McCain, "Sex and Schools: Now a 4th 4R'," World Journal Tribune, New York, November 16, 1966, p. 68.

3 New York City, Board of Education, "Resolved, That the Superintendent of Schools be, and he is hereby, directed to prepare a suitable program of instruction for all pupils in appropriate grades in the area of Family Living. This course of study shall include a sensitive presentation of the importance of understanding of sex as it relates to wholesome living, ethical, emotional and social maturity, as well as the reproductive process," News release, April 14 and 15, 1967.

4 McCain, op. cit., p. 68; and confirmed in personal discussion between John Chandler, Jr. and James Malfetti, March 22, 1967.

5 Warren R. Johnson and Margaret Schutt, "Sex Education Attitudes of School Administrators and School Board Members," Journal of School Health, 36:2 (February 1966), p. 66.

6 "Teacher-Opinion Poll—Sex Education," NBA Journal, 54:2 (February 1965), p. 52.

7 Curtis E. Avery, "Sex Education Through Rose Colored Glasses," The Family Life Coordinator, 13:4 (October 1964), p. 83.

8 Marie A. Hinrichs and Robert Kaplan, "The Home, the School, and Sex Education," Today's Health, 44:2 (February 1966), p. 66.

9 Harry Kaplan, "The Sexual Revolution and Religious Education," Religious Education, 61:6 (November-December 1966), p. 427-428.

10 Cynthia Wedel, "Reaping the Whirlwind," Religious Education, 61:6 (November-December 1966), pp. 431-432.

11 Johnson and Schutt, op. cit., p. 68.

12 Fred M. Hechinger, An Adventure in Education. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1956, p. 173.

13 SIECUS Release, 1855 Broadway, New York, Summer, 1966.

14 Curtis E. Avery, "Some Thoughts on the Fourth 'R'," The Family Life Coordinator, 13-A (April 1966), p. 36.

15 Lester A. Kirkendall, Sex Education, Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S., Discussion Guide, No. 1. New York: SIECUS (October 1965) p. 4.

16 Deryck Calderwood, "Adolescents' Views on Sex Education," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 27:2 (May 1965), p. 298.

17 Walter E. Mulholland, "Sex or Social Education," The Clearing House, 41:6 (February 1967), p. 332.

18 Mary S. Calderone, address to Blair Academy, November 1965, as reported in: Edward Yeomans, NAIS Institute of Sex Education, Boston: National Association of Independent Schools, 1966, p. 5.

19 Helen Southard, "The Revolution in Sex Education: What Schools Can Do," Teaching and Learning, (1967), p. 7.

20 Mary S. Calderone, "The Development of Healthy Sexuality," Journal of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, 37:7 (September 1966) p. 23.

21 Donald Snygg, "A Cognitive Field Theory of Learning," Learning and Mental Health in the School, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1966 Yearbook, Washington, D.C.: National Education Association, 1966, p. 85.

22 Judson T. Landis, "Attitudes and Policies Concerning Marriages Among High School Students," Marriage and Family Living, 18:2 (May 1956), p. 135.

23 Allan Adale Glatthorn, "Family Life Education in the Public High Schools of Pennsylvania," unpublished Ed.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1960.

24 Warren H. Southworth, "The Nature of Sex Education Programs in Wisconsin High Schools," High School Journal, 38 (December 1954), p. 85.

25 William F. Kenkel, "A Survey of Family Life Education in Iowa High Schools," Marriage and Family Living, 19:4 (November 1957), p. 381.

26 Johnson and Schutt, op. cit., p. 65.

27 Robert A. and Frances R. Harper, "Are Educators Afraid of Sex?" Marriage and Family Living, 19:3 (August 1957), p. 242. Also, a modified "T" group has been used toward this end by the authors and a colleague with a group of classroom teachers enrolled in a course to prepare them to teach sex education. The results have been highly encouraging.

28 Lester A. Kirkendall and Deryck Calderwood, "The Family, the School, and Peer Groups; Sources of Information About Sex," The Journal of School Health, 35:7 (September 1965), p. 295.

29 Deryck Calderwood and Leila Den Beste, "Developing Open Communication About Sex With Youth," Journal of Marriage and the Family, 28:4 (November 1966), p. 256.

30 SIECUS Newsletter, 2:1 (Spring 1966), p. 2, 9.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 69 Number 3, 1967, p. 213-222 ID Number: 2013, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 2:58:58 PM

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