JACKSON, Miss. – An investigation by the Southern Education Desk has found that the committee appointed by the Mississippi Department of Education to evaluate sex education programs for the state’s school made mistakes in the approval process. Most members of the committee didn’t have the expertise necessary to complete the job accurately.
The Mississippi Department of Education chose six people to decide which sex ed programs were suitable for use in state schools. It kept the review process secluded – reviewers’ names and scoring were only released after repeated requests and only after the programs had already been approved.
The six committee members convened on four occasions, packed into a tight conference room. They weren’t allowed to confer with one another. Scott Clements of the Mississippi Department of Education says their seclusion was meant to ensure independent analysis and protect committee members from lobbying and undue influence.
“Really our goals were to get diversity in that group,” says Clements. “We had a range of people there. The Department of Health was there, a school board member was there, superintendent, principal, health teacher and school nurse.”
But despite that diversity, nearly all the committee members inaccurately awarded high points to programs that did not have scientific data to back their claims.
Reviewers were given a score sheet to guide their evaluations, but received no formal training to help them assess real scientific data from marketing claims . One of the elements they were asked to evaluate was which programs were what’s known as “evidence-based”- meaning those programs that had already been proven to work and had legitimate scientific data to back it up.
Distinguishing what is truly “evidence-based” is difficult – it requires experience and a trained eye. 5 out of 6 reviewers awarded full points for evidence to programs that weren’t evidence-based as well as for research of very low quality. At least 2 of the committee member admitted they had difficulty evaluating which programs had real data and which did not. For example, one reviewer, Marian Barksdale says she struggled with the process because the convincing nature of vendors’ marketing claims.
“And so it is very hard for a lay person to come in and discern what is truly evidence-based and what would be considered so by the medical and scientific communities,” says Barksdale.
Another committee member, Dr. Philip Burchfield, the Superintendent of the Clinton School District, says he found what he was presented overwhelming. The curriculum packages were each hundreds of pages long.
“A lot of times I looked at the table of contents to see what was in the program,” says Burchfield. “You could have turned a day’s work into six weeks of work if you went from page to page to page to see if the document was appropriate or not.”
In the end, sex education programs without track records of success were approved over programs that did. If scoring had been accurate, four programs that were approved for Mississippi schools would not have made the cut. About half of school districts are using one of these four programs this year.
The Mississippi Department of Education has not notified districts of the mistake nor has it recalled any curricula. But officials at the Department say it’s just the first year and that they are exploring the option of working the Mississippi Department of Health to ensure evidence and research are more accurately accounted for in future years.
The Southern Education Desk digitized all documents pertaining to this investigation. Data for this report were based on the curricula review sheets and proposals provided to SED by the Mississippi Department of Education for a fee. We’ve also transcribed all review sheet data points into a single spreadsheet available for download.