JACKSON, Miss. - Mississippi has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country. The state is trying to bring that rate down by mandating for the first time that sex education be taught in every Mississippi school. Last summer school districts across the state had to chose which approach to teach this fall – either Abstinence Only or Abstinence Plus.
And while there are many different sex education programs, many in Mississippi see sex education as fitting into one of those two categories. But public health officials see it a different way. To them, it’s not a question of Abstinence Only or Abstinence Plus; it’s a question of evidence-based or not evidence-based.
Evidence-based programs have a proven track record – scientific research data that shows they reduce risky behaviors or improve safe practices. Jamie Bardwell of the Women’s Fund says only these proven programs should be taught in Mississippi’s classrooms.
“Young people deserve the access to the best sex education programs that we can find,” says Bardwell. “And we know exactly which ones those are. A large body of research indicates which sex education programs are effective at changing behavior.”
The US Department of Health and Human Services*, provides a list of programs whose research meet the scientific criteria (control group, behavioral outcomes, etc.) to become evidence-based (delayed sexual initiation, more frequent condom use, etc.). The list includes “Draw the Line” being taught in rural Lexington in central Mississippi.
“Our lesson today is going to focus on warning signs and how y’all can handle those situations by being aware of those warning signs,” says School Counselor Shanika Hickmon, opening the day’s discussion lesson with
group of six seventh grade girls. Hickmon says she wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching a program without evidence. “Most definitely! Because I wouldn’t want to teach a program where it is not proven to work,” she says. “It is easier for me to teach because I believe in the curriculum that we have been presented with.”
But evidence-based classrooms such as Hickmon’s is a rarity. 75 percent of Mississippi school districts are not teaching evidence-based sex education programs. That’s in part because the Mississippi law doesn’t make it a requirement. Still, the Mississippi Department of Education, the agency in charge of picking sex ed programs, was given latitude to choose criteria not mentioned in state law. A Freedom of Information request of their records showed scientific evidence and research data counted for 10% of points on official evaluations of the programs. In comparison, just listing the cost of a program – not rating its cost effectiveness – but just including the cost was worth 20%.
Scott Clements, the Director of the Office of Healthy Schools at the Mississippi Department of Education says evidence could not be weighted higher. He says evidence-based programs had to be modified under state law to remove classroom condom demonstrations
“When it comes to evidence-based, as companies have had to modify the curriculum to meet state law, can you really say they are evidence-based anymore?” asks Clements. “I have 20 ingredients that have somehow gone into this, I’ve made this compound, and I pulled one, can I still say it has the same effectiveness? So really none of them are evidence-based.”
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Mary Currier disagrees. The change still requires students to complete a “do and don’t” worksheet about how to properly use a condom, so she argues the
change is so small that it does nothing to undermine the programs’ status as evidence-based. And, she argues, that makes them the best option for schools.
“We would love to see schools to use the ones that are endorsed by CDC because we know they work,” says Currier. “And we got a problem now, and we need to do something about it now.”
Carroll Penick of the Women’s Fund agrees. She says not going with what has been proven most effective means Mississippi is compromising in its fight against teen pregnancy – a fight the state cannot afford to lose.
“In fact, [former] Governor Barbour and Governor Bryant have both said it’s the number one issue that affects people in Mississippi,” says Penick.
Teen pregnancy rates still soar above national averages in both white and black areas of the state. But majority black school districts were far more likely to choose evidence-based sex education programs. Overall, 3 in 4 schools districts around the state are not using programs that have scientific research data proving they can reduce the rate of teen pregnancy.
What’s your local public school teaching? The map on the left shows county teen pregnancy rates. The deeper the purple the higher the percentage. The map on the right shows what sex education program the school district chose. Evidence is in green, those without are in red.
*Data provided by the Mississippi Department of Health and the Mississippi Department of Education.
**CORRECTION: This article originally reported the evidence-based list was provided by the Centers for Disease Control. While the CDC created extensive criteria for sex education research to be considered evidence-based, it is an office in their governing agency, the US Department of Health and Human Services, that issues the list.