top of page

So Today, Let’s NOT Teach Health Like it’s 1999

Your input is vital to ensure that school children in Massachusetts get the information they need to be and remain healthy. Please submit your comments by Monday, August 28, 2023.

Quick question... In what year was the current Massachusetts health curriculum developed? If you guessed 1999, you are correct. Yep, the health curriculum for our children has not been revised since the year in which Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing came to an end, The Sixth Sense taught us about seeing dead people, Napster was created, and Cher’s “Believe" and Britney’s “…Baby One More” time ruled the music charts.

Not surprisingly, these guidelines reflect what was known 24 years ago about important health-related issues. For example, the sex ed guidelines are very general, are heavily focused on an abstinence-only approach, and do not address the issue of consent in personal relationships. The guidelines offer shockingly little information and guidance about mental health concerns and limited strategies to address and prevent substance use and abuse in young people. The guidelines also reflect outdated concepts around LGBTQIA+ identities; they assume a gender binary and do not address the existence of transgender, intersex, or non-binary people. Sexual orientation is only cursorily mentioned in a few places.

The Newton public school guidelines (Physical Education, Health & Wellness / Curriculum Overview) have consistently gone above and beyond the state standards. For example, they have a more nuanced and in-depth focus on appreciating individual differences and on interpersonal violence prevention. Of course, there is always room for improvement, and having an updated state-wide framework would help ensure that all Massachusetts students receive accurate information about a range of key health-related concepts.

The Healey-Driscoll administration and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recently proposed an updated, comprehensive health framework that is rooted in current scientific understanding and offers up-to-date, evidence-based, and age- and developmentally appropriate information for youth from pre-kindergarten through high school.

On June 27, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) voted unanimously to solicit public comment on the new draft framework. You can read a summarized version of the draft on the What's Trending section of our affiliated site or access the full PDF on the Department of Education's website.

For historical context, a bill called the Healthy Youth Act included similar updates to the Massachusetts health curriculum and was presented before the state legislature four times in the past ten years. However, each time that it passed in the Senate, it died in the House. Because it has been proposed by the Governor, the Healey/BESE Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (CHPE) Framework does not need to pass through the legislative bodies.

Opponents of updating the health framework have escalated their opposition using “parental rights” talking points and sensational allegations of sexualizing or exposing children to pornography to divert attention from the scientific basis of the framework. These inflammatory claims are inaccurate. The standards are grade adapted and based on medical and public health information about developmentally relevant topics and issues.

Schools can opt out of teaching sex ed, and, as with all frameworks, school districts will decide at the local level which curriculum and materials educators will use to teach the skills included in the voluntary health framework. State law requires notification to parents to encourage communication between students and their parents/guardians. Parents can and should use the curriculum as an opportunity to put what their child is learning into the context of their family’s values and beliefs. The law also allows parents to opt their children out of the sex ed portions of the curriculum as they deem appropriate.

The current lack of up-to-date, medically accurate, and inclusive information harms Massachusetts students. Several alarming facts support the need for updated, inclusive guidelines:

  • Rates of STIs like chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea are on the rise, perhaps because only 50% of MA teens report having learned how to use a condom.

  • “81% of LGBTQ youth in MA learn nothing about LGBTQ+ topics in sex ed, an experience that leaves them without tools they need to stay healthy while also isolating and stigmatizing them.”

  • According to a 2022 report by SIECUS, which studies sexuality and sex education in schools nationally, “Massachusetts lags behind other states in requirements and quality of sex education. The report accredited the state’s mandates on ‘some healthy relationship education’ but noted its lack of sex and HIV education. The agency gave Massachusetts no marks for age-appropriate, evidence-based, or medically accurate standards for education on sex, HIV, or healthy relationships.”

  • Youth in Massachusetts are reporting significant emotional distress, mental health concerns, and substance use/misuse. The Newton-Wellesley Hospital - 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment found that 20% of middle schoolers and 27% of highschoolers in MetroWest had elevated symptoms of depression. In Waltham, this number reached a staggering 31% of middle schoolers and 40% of high schoolers, with 26% of middle schoolers reporting suicidal ideation. Across MetroWest communities, 13% of middle schoolers and 19% of high schoolers reported engaging in purposeful self-harm, 17% of middle schoolers and 16% of high schoolers reported suicidal thoughts, nearly 45% of high schoolers described lifetime alcohol use, 21% reported marijuana use, and 10.5% and 24% reported cigarette and nicotine vape use, respectively.

  • In the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, up to 12.2% of high school students reported having experienced physical and/or sexual dating violence.

Denying students appropriate information about health-related topics such as safe sex practices does not “protect” them. Nor does it encourage them to seek information from their parents, since 60% of Massachusetts high schoolers report that they do NOT talk to their parents about sex or sexuality (HYA Fact Sheet 2023). Instead, youth are more likely to turn to their peers or the internet to seek out information, increasing the risk that they will both obtain inaccurate and potentially harmful information and be exposed to age-inappropriate content.

The proposed framework also addresses a broader range of important health-related topics outside of sex and sexuality that have important implications for all Massachusetts students, in a more in-depth and nuanced manner. The following are just some of the improvements included in the new standards:

There is an increased recognition of the multiple factors that may impact wellness and health behaviors including cultural and familial factors; social determinants of health; individual characteristics, beliefs, and behaviors; and previous experiences.

Throughout, the guidelines encourage the seeking out of additional information from trusted sources (including but not limited to parents) and encourage students to be critical consumers to discriminate between accurate/helpful and inaccurate/unhelpful information.

The standards consistently emphasize respect and appreciation for diversity, including differences around race, gender, ethnicity, religion, culture, ability, individual choices, and family composition.

The standards are much more LGBTQIA+ inclusive, and references to gender identity and sexual orientation are woven throughout the guidelines in age-appropriate ways.

Although the standards continue to emphasize the benefits of abstinence and postponing sexual activity, they also describe strategies for reducing risk for unintended pregnancy and STIs, emphasize the importance of personal beliefs and cultural factors in making choices around sexual activity, and highlight boundary setting and negotiation skills.

There is much more focus on healthy versus unhealthy interpersonal relationships, as well as strategies for developing and maintaining positive relationships, managing difficult interactions and conflict, and recognizing and addressing abusive relationships.

Relatedly, the issue of boundaries and consent is repeatedly revisited from pre-K through high school, including how to affirm one’s boundaries with others, the responsibility to recognize and respect others’ boundaries, the impact of power dynamics and systemic biases (e.g., racism, stereotypes), and consent around sexual interactions.

The standards around mental and emotional health are more trauma-informed and recognize the interaction of individual vulnerabilities and external stressors in the development of emotional difficulties. There is much more detail about specific, evidence-based strategies to manage stress and emotional distress, a focus on reducing stigma, and the provision of resources to address more significant mental health concerns.

The standards address current issues and technologies that did not exist in 1999, including the influence of social media, sexting, teen vaping, and the opioid crisis.

In summary, the proposed framework supports all youth because LGBTQ+ inclusive, medically accurate, and developmentally appropriate instruction is necessary for our students to understand key health concepts, adopt healthy habits from an early age, forge strong, positive, healthy relationships, and appreciate multiple aspects of identity.

We encourage all Newton Upstanders to submit supportive public comments during this public comment period.

At the same time, these guidelines are not perfect, and your feedback is important.

For example, the guidelines mention having school resource officers deliver the curriculum, which could have a negative impact on students, especially those with minoritized or marginalized identities.

Your input is vital to ensure that school children in Massachusetts get the information they need to be and remain healthy. Please submit your comments by Monday, August 28, 2023, in one of the following ways:

  • Submit using the Public Comment Survey:

  • Email to Kristen McKinnon at

  • Mail to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Attention: Kristen McKinnon, 75 Pleasant Street, Malden, MA 02131

This toolkit may be helpful in crafting your comments.


bottom of page