New High School FLASH curriculum gets evaluation funding

teens talking in classroomMost students in King County and many other students around the country (and the world) are taught sexual health education (or, “sex ed”)  using a comprehensive curriculum called FLASH. Last year about 80,000 FLASH lesson plans were downloaded from all over the U.S., but this ubiquitous curriculum was developed right here at Public Health by our staff of family planning health educators.

The history of FLASH
Like many great inventions, FLASH was born out of necessity. In the mid-eighties, a lack of quality sexual health education materials inspired health educator Beth Reis to compile the best lesson plans she could find. As funding became available, the family planning team consulted research and continued to improve the product intended to help prevent teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual violence, while improving family communication. In 2015, the high school curriculum was fully revised and made available via a user-friendly web platform equipped with a lesson plan-selection tool, among other features.

Now, with different lesson plans for elementary, middle and high school students, as well as special education, FLASH has distinguished itself in the world of sexual health education.

What makes FLASH different?
1. It uses a culturally competent approach.
FLASH incorporates a values question protocol, an adaptable tool that allows teachers to handle value-laden questions without imposing their own values, while encouraging students to learn about their families’ beliefs about these topics. Additionally the lessons include concrete examples and activities that resonate with youth from a variety of geographical regions, racial identities, and sexual orientations. The curriculum is also inclusive of students with a variety of sexual experiences.

2. It includes family.
A large piece of this curriculum involves conversation with family members. The students are provided with assignments that will help them engage with parents or another trusted adult who is like family, and the family exercises have been translated into many of the languages spoken in King County. This measure is by design – research shows that family engagement is an important protective factor for young people.

3. It is highly interactive.
Every FLASH lesson plan is different. Students may be asked to review scenarios, role play, brainstorm and create graffiti sheets. For the final lesson, students create a poster campaign.

4. It’s designed by a health department in partnership with schools.
It makes perfect sense that sexual health education would be developed with a public health lens for use in the classroom, but this is a surprisingly rare occurrence. Most curricula are developed by non-profit organizations and universities for use within other types of non-profit organizations. Though these other options also provide quality sexual health education to students, we believe that our unique population health perspective provides an important added value.

5. It is evidence-informed.
The information in FLASH is based on science and adheres to the Characteristics of Effective Sex Education Programs. It is also aligned with both the Center for Disease Control’s National Health Education Standards for Sexual Health and the National Sexuality Education Standards. The curriculum is rooted in work by Doug Kirby and other researchers at ETR Associates. Most of the lessons have been informed by the Theory of Planned Behavior, though the sexual violence lessons have their own theoretical underpinning.

Taking FLASH to the next level
For all work that has gone into creating FLASH, the program has never been rigorously evaluated. But, all of that is about to change because our Public Health family planning team has been selected to receive funding to measure pregnancy, STD and sexual violence outcomes in a multi-year group randomized control trial of students receiving the high school FLASH curriculum. The evaluation planning has already begun, and it will start being implemented in the 2016-2017 school year. Our team will work with ETR Associates in two locations, Atlanta and West Virginia, where implementers will soon be trained.

“This evaluation gives us the opportunity to put our curriculum under the microscope, while also making a meaningful contribution to the field,” said health educator Andrea Gerber. “As one of only a handful health departments taking on this kind of work, we are excited to show how a public health lens makes a difference in terms of outcomes.”

More about FLASH
To learn more about FLASH and to download lesson plans, visit our website. The newly-revised High School FLASH 3rd Edition is free to King County teachers and residents. Request a license by emailing FLASH@kingcounty.gov. All other grade levels are free online at www.kingcounty.gov/health/flash.

Questions about FLASH or the curriculum evaluation? Contact the lead authors of the FLASH curriculum below:

Andrea Gerber – andrea.gerber@kingcounty.gov
Kari Kesler – kari.kesler@kingcounty.gov