Five years and more than a half billion dollars later, it appears that what were promised as effective models for sex education curricula simply are not. In a blow to the heavily-funded federal Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program (TPP), new research shows dismal results for youth served in the program. Begun in 2010, the TPP program was called “evidence-based” by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and communities were guaranteed positive results if they implemented one of the curricula on the HHS-approved list, as shown by this quote found on the HHS website: “Evidence-based programs can be expected to produce positive results consistently.“ But the findings of the newly released research shows the promise was mostly inaccurate.
According to researchers who worked on the evaluation project, “most of the programs had small or insignificant impacts on adolescent behavior.” A closer look at the research findings reveals that this summary may be a generous assessment of the results, since some youth actually fared worse when they were enrolled in some of the funded projects. Compared with their peers who were in the program, teens in some TPP-funded projects were more likely to begin having sex, more likely to engage in oral sex, and more likely to get pregnant. In fact, more than 80% of students in these programs fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not in the program.
Valerie Huber, president/CEO of Ascend responded to the TPP results: “For years, we have been concerned that objective research protocols were ignored when making the ‘evidence-based’ promises for TPP. As a result, school administrators and community stakeholders were led to believe that if they wanted their youth to thrive, they must implement curricula from the TPP ‘evidence-based’ list. Many well-intentioned decision makers did just that, but now they learn that this decision may have been ill-advised – and that their students may be at increased risk as a result.”
“This research gives us serious reason to pause – ask the hard questions – and be willing to amend what messages we are giving vulnerable youth. It’s time to bring honesty and transparency to the entire issue of sex education. The fact is that the sexual risk reduction approach, typified in the TPP program, holds no claim on successful models that guarantee sexual health for youth.”
The lessons from public health tell us two things that should inform sex education policies, beginning today:
The healthiest message for youth is one that gives youth the skills and information to avoid the risks of teen sex, not merely reduce them. This is a message that is relevant in 2016, since the majority of teens have not had sex, far fewer, in fact, than 20 years ago. Therefore, we need to be more intentional with finding the best ways to help youth achieve this optimal health outcome.
TPP programs overwhelmingly normalize teen sex – a message that 1 in 4 teens say makes them feel pressured to have sex. The recently-released TPP research appears to confirm this felt sexual-pressure. As a society, we must normalize sexual delay and make it a realistic expectation.
Huber suggests one more consideration: “Sex education posturing and policies should not be about winning or losing a debate. Policies must be about increasing the chances that all youth can obtain optimal sexual health and a brighter opportunity for a healthy and successful future. Nothing less is acceptable.”
The attached infographic summarizes the results for the years 2010-2014, the period of time studied in the TPP research.
A summary of the findings from HHS can be found here.
 HHS, Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) website. Retrieved October 14, 2016 at http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/oah-initiatives/teen_pregnancy/training/curriculum.html
 (2016). Special issue of American Journal of Public Health explores impacts of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. American Journal of Public Health: September 2016. 106 (S1):S9-S15.
Retrieved on October 14, 2016 at http://www.news-medical.net/news/20160930/Special-issue-of-American-Journal-of-Public-Health-explores-impacts-of-Teen-Pregnancy-Prevention-Program.aspx
 CDC (2016) YRBS. Atlanta: Author. Retrieved October 14, 2016 at
 (2015). Teens speak out. Ventura: Barna Research.
Ascend (formerly the National Abstinence Education Association) champions youth to make healthy decisions in relationships and life by promoting well being through a primary prevention strategy, and as a national membership and advocacy organization that serves, leads, represents and equips the Sexual Risk Avoidance field.
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