June 21, 2009

Political Camouflage

When DrugMonkey Tweeted a link to this study earlier this week, I had to follow it. I do love me some science-based policy and effective interventions.

A study suggests that school-based prevention programs begun in elementary school can significantly reduce problem behaviors in students. Fifth graders who previously participated in a comprehensive interactive school prevention program for one to four years were about half as likely to engage in substance abuse, violent behavior, or sexual activity as those who did not take part in the program. The study, supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a component of the National Institutes of Health, will appear in the August 2009 print issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The online version of the article is viewable today.

I was happily reading along, noting that the authors were appropriately cautious, talking about the longer-term follow-up that needs to be done. Then I hit this paragraph.

"This study demonstrates that a comprehensive, schoolwide social and character development program can have a substantial impact on reducing problem behaviors of public health importance in elementary-school-age youth," said Dr. Brian Flay of Oregon State University, the study’s principal investigator.

"[C]haracter development"? Huh. "Character" is one of those words, right up there with "class" and "breeding," that generally tells me someone is trying to separate the "deserving" and the "undeserving" for their own exclusionary purposes. I headed to the website of Positive Action, the program in question.

The first look was not promising. Their page title reads, "Positive Action: an Evidence-Based Character Education Program." There was the problematic word again. However, the further I dug into their curriculum, the less I saw that was in any way objectionable, since it turns out the reliance on this nebulous quality of "character" was all surface.

Relieved but grumpy, I bitched to DM.

They've got to make the program all about "character"? Because if we instill self-esteem and teach kids to analyze behavior and view influences skeptically, they might turn out to be too radical or something.

Don't mind me. I'm just pissed that we have to support conservative buzzwords that are tied to all sorts of nasty thinking in order to get a good idea past them.

We snarked a bit about the nature of the conservative character, and I forgot about the matter until I saw this link from Analiese.

Thankfully, the Obama administration has brought some measure of sanity to public health policy, cutting most abstinence-only education funding from the 2010 budget. But abstinence organizations are not going away. In fact, they're getting organized. Well aware that their cause is in trouble and unpopular, purity proponents are revamping their image to appear more mainstream. And with Obama's faith-based initiative lending them an ear, it just might work. [...]

The lack of consistent and presentable leadership, combined with ripe-for-mockery educators like Deltano, has made it all too easy to dismiss the virginity movement's message. And they know it. One of the "Strategic Objectives" now listed on the NAEA website is "Rebranding the abstinence message."

So when the NAEA met for its annual lobby day in March, high on the list of priorities was developing a strategy for continuing to receive federal dollars. Joe Sonka, managing editor of the Advocates for Youth blog Amplify, wrote of the lobby day, "Instead of abandoning their demonization of condoms and adherence to social conservative ideology over sound science, they would simply rebrand themselves as a curriculum that 'wasn't just about abstinence,' but was all about 'holistic approaches' to 'healthy lifestyle choices.'"

At an April 29 Capitol Hill briefing, Huber told the room that abstinence-only education is "not a 'just say no' message." "This is not abstinence only, this is a holistic message that prepares and gives students all of the information they need to make healthy decisions," Huber said. In fact, the NAEA isn't even calling its programs "abstinence only" anymore--now they're "abstinence centered."

You know, of course, that they're nothing of the sort. I highly recommend reading the article to find out what new guises the abstinence movement is using to hide itself. It's even claiming to be "science-based," although as you would expect, the science is the bought-and-paid-for sort that the energy companies are using to fight effective action against global warming.

Yes, read and be prepared (as it were). But while you're reading, feel free to take a moment to be heartened, because it's awfully nice to know that they are feeling the need to adopt our language for a change.


Juniper Shoemaker said...

"Character" is one of those words, right up there with "class" and "breeding," that generally tells me someone is trying to separate the "deserving" and the "undeserving" for their own exclusionary purposes.

What an astute observation. I struggle daily with this, because I grew up thinking that this behavior was not only "okay" but imperative to the success that I can't live without. This is a digression, however. And not a very pleasant one, either.

Because if we instill self-esteem and teach kids to analyze behavior and view influences skeptically, they might turn out to be too radical or something.

There's a whole blog post of mine in there, somewhere. I underwent years of DARE and sex ed classes on military bases; immediately afterwards, I departed for Catholic school.

All of my sex education was framed in terms of (female) "purity". But I'm old. Meanwhile, during my last foray into graduate school (at a large public SoCal university), I was stunned to frequently overhear male undergrads-- tiny tots born in the late '80s and early '90s; members of a generation allegedly more enlightened than mine-- in the ATM and food court lines saying things to their buds like, "Me, I have a lot of experience. But I don't want to marry a girl with a lot of experience. I don't really want a wife who's been with too many men besides me".

Dude, I'm a virgin, and I still thought this was archaic. All this "abstinence-centered" education, with its (female) purity and "character building" schtick in lieu of a value-neutral presentation of facts and emphasis on critical thinking, would be hilarious to me if I didn't think that there was some reason for concern.

Lou FCD said...

Interestingly, I had a problem with the article you quote well before the one you mentioned.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Juniper, these things are cyclical, unfortunately. Every time they come around again, we lose more kids to the kind of nonsense you've been hearing. On the other hand, that means your experience and your insights are still relevant.

Lou, I noticed that, and it annoyed me, but without having the study itself in front of me and being able to see what kinds of questions they actually asked, I don't know what kind of judgment they're actually making. There are some early sexual behaviors that do correlate with poorer outcomes for kids, probably because they reflect abusive situations more than anything else. I would suspect that the decrease in sexual behavior generally reflects a decrease in that abusive behavior, because I saw nothing in the curriculum that's specific to sexuality. It has a lot more to do with teaching kids to respect themselves and resist peer pressure. That should mean the kids are doing what they want to do and not what someone else wants them to do.

Lou FCD said...

I'm looking at the study now, and on first skim my impression is that the "sexual activity" portion of the study is inherently flawed.

First, it begins with the presumption that high school students having sex is a problem behavior in and of itself. The goal of Positive Action in this regard is in question before it gets to the starting line.

Second, though it specifically references intercourse when discussing the high school students, there is no indication that the students at the beginning of the study even knew what that meant. (Remember, these are first and second grade students. ...in America.) This introduces the distinct possibility that the lower instances of self reported "sexual activity" at the end of the study could be entirely due to the students having been educated on what that means, while the control group was still clueless.

Further, reading the paper gives me the distinct impression that "sexual activity" has just been thrown in for no apparent reason here and there (but not addressed in any serious or meaningful way). The paper itself admits to one aspect of this part of the study:

"There are some limitations to this study that require attention. First, the reports of negative behaviors were collected only during 5th grade and only for the two cohorts followed in the study, and therefore, may not be reflective of the behavior of the entire student body. This limitation was an outcome of the study design and restrictions placed by the Institutional Review Board who prevented the use of sensitive questions with younger (i.e., 4th grade and lower) students."

I'll give it a more thorough read, but as of now I'd say the "sexual activity" part of this study is well-nigh worthless.