• The North Carolina State Board of Education will decide whether to adopt new academic content standards for K–12 Health and Physical Education in June
  • It’s unclear whether changes incorporated into the third draft truly promote parental involvement in children’s health education and promote premarital abstinence as an expectation, and whether they would allow for the adoption of curricula that includes instruction about gender identity
  • These questions cast doubt on the quality and utility of the standards

Will the topics and objectives within North Carolina’s new Healthful Living standards help students live healthier lives? Revisions proposed earlier this month by the Department of Public Instruction cast doubt on the quality and utility of the version that will likely be adopted by the State Board of Education in June.

Education officials in North Carolina have been working to revise the state’s Healthful Living standards since 2021. The process is important because the standards provide a uniform, statewide framework that helps to determine what K–12 students should know and be able to do after completing each Health or Physical Education course or class.

Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) presented the third (and likely final) draft of the standards to the State Board of Education (SBE) on May 2. The SBE is set to vote on the standards during its next meeting on June 6.

Although some positive changes have been made from the prior draft, the standards suffer from certain deficiencies and unanswered questions that raise questions as to their ultimate value.

Promoting Parental Involvement?

To their credit, standards writers incorporated some positive changes that align with the John Locke Foundation’s recommendations and help to improve the draft.

For example, writers added language that helps to reinforce parents’ key role in providing health-related information and advice to their kids. Whenever the standards advise children to seek help from a “trusted adult,” they now explicitly reference parents or guardians. In previous versions, kids would have been taught to seek help from “trusted adults,” but not necessarily their parents.

Nevertheless, whether these changes truly promote parental interaction, as required by statute (G.S. § 115C-81.30(a)(7)), or whether they are just window-dressing, is still up for debate. Although the standards now lump in parents and guardians with all references to trusted adults, parents still aren’t mentioned at all in some grades.

A quick search reveals that Kindergarteners (K.ANCOD.1.3), first graders (1.ICHR.1.3, 1.ICHR.1.6, 1 ANCOD.1.3), and fifth graders (5.MEH.1.2, 5.ICHR.1.2) will be encouraged to approach their parents for advice about health-related questions, yet the standards and objectives for grades 2 though 4 don’t reference parents at all. Similarly, sixth (6.MEH.1.1), seventh (7.MEH.3.2, 7.ICHR.3.5), and ninth graders (9.ICHR.3.1) will be reminded to approach their parents or guardians for advice, but eighth graders won’t be. What accounts for the difference in language? 

As a result, the standards suffer from deficiencies in vertical alignment in the content and objectives for certain grade levels. To encourage meaningful interactions between children and their parents, especially on sensitive and important questions relating to health, the standards should include objectives to that effect in every grade or course.

Promoting an Expectation of Premarital Abstinence?

North Carolina law requires school districts to “[t]each that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school‑age children” whenever they provide instruction about reproductive health and safety. In their final attempt, standards writers seemed to make little, if any, progress towards upholding premarital abstinence as the expectation for student conduct.

In Draft 2, language referencing abstinence until marriage was incorporated into the standards for seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. In Draft 3, similar language was added to one objective for seventh graders (7.ICHR.2.1) and one for ninth graders (9.ICHR.2). Inexplicably, however, marriage is no longer referenced anywhere in the eighth-grade standards or objectives. As a result, the standards are not vertically aligned from grade to grade, which undercuts any attempt to reinforce premarital abstinence as the expected standard for students.

Furthermore, the standards continue to undermine themselves by discussing premarital abstinence in the same breath as contraceptive use and “safer sex options” (9.ICHR.2.1). As a result, references to premarital abstinence come across as empty platitudes that merely pay lip service to the legislative intent expressed in statute.

Opening the Door for Curriculum that Teaches About Gender Identity?

Significant delays in the standards revision process raised questions as to whether the standards would encourage instruction about gender identity. The standards themselves don’t mention gender identity, but could vague language open the door for districts to adopt curriculum that does so?

Once the SBE formally adopts new content standards, school districts must accept them, but they can decide how to do so through curriculum. This ability can empower school boards by helping them “compensate for defective or vague standards.” It could also, however, allow school boards to adopt curricula that incorporate instruction on gender identity into the topic of puberty.

The proposed standards and objectives for grades 4 through 6 discuss puberty, but nowhere does the text distinguish between boys and girls. Thus, the draft diverges slightly from current standards, which say that fifth graders should be able to “[s]ummarize the functions of the male and female reproductive systems” (p. 12).

North Carolina’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which became law in Aug. 2023, prohibits any “[i]nstruction on gender identity, sexual activity, or sexuality” in grades K–4, but not in later grades. Vague language in the proposed Healthful Living standards could open the door for such instruction in these later grades.

DPI has recommended that the SBE approve the standards at its next meeting, and it seems likely that the board will do so. After that, barring action by the General Assembly, the installation phase will begin, and teachers will prepare to implement the standards beginning in the 2025–26 school year.

The version that will likely guide teachers’ instruction is vague. Having vague standards not only is bad for kids, but it also leaves the door open for school boards to adopt instructional materials that sideline parents, downplay abstinence before marriage, and incorporate instruction in gender identity.