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Relationship Studies

Everyone's content when schools teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. But what about when they take on relationships?

According to the Florida legislature, this fourth 'R' belongs on the list of things every teen should understand. So even as the state jumps on the national bandwagon toward tougher academic standards and testing, it's also moving into an area a No. 2 pencil can't easily gauge: how people get along - and stay married.

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The Florida high school graduation requirement, which takes effect next January, mirrors more-informal efforts at schools around the United States. From programs such as "The Art of Loving Well" (developed at Boston University) to the American Bar Association-sponsored "Partners," schools are probing ways to help students identify qualities they like in a partner, improve communication, and examine divorce.

The controversy, of course, is whether such learning is best done in school.

Program advocates argue that kids need such knowledge and too often don't get it at home. They point to research suggesting that giving young people better interpersonal skills could lower the divorce rate. They cite the growing number of children who say they'd like to avoid the mistakes that led their parents to divorce.

But others express reservations. Many schools already include a roster of nonacademic classes. Some of the courses used in schools claim that teachers need little or no training, not necessarily a comforting thought. The American Federation of Teachers has also questioned the merits of asking teachers of, say, algebra or Shakespeare, to become relationship-skills experts. (Although you could argue that a thorough grounding in Shakespeare could serve students very well.)

Then there's the school-parent connection. Just as sex-ed classes can raise hackles, so can different opinions about how best to handle relationships - especially when parents first hear about them after the fact at the dinner table.

The Florida legislation passed easily. Many adults see these classes as one way to support the family. But once they're required, how do you grade students' success? What if they fail? No degree because of poor relationship skills?

A class has limits. Adults setting good examples speak far more loudly to kids, after all. If the classes don't detract from academics, and encourage reflection about relationships and marriage, they may be worthwhile. But advocates should be careful about pinning high hopes on a semester's take on a complex subject.

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