AERA Holds Congressional Briefing on LGBTQ Issues in Education, Shares Research Agenda

On July 9, four distinguished scholars shared the results of an initiative and subsequent publication, LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer] Issues in Education: Advancing a Research Agenda, by the American Educational Research Association (AERA), a COSSA Governing Member. The report “exemplifies one of the most important objectives of AERA as a scientific and scholarly association: to bring rigorous and relevant knowledge to bear on salient issues in education and to help chart future directions of inquiry,” states Felice Levine, AERA executive director, in the preface of the recently released report and moderator of the congressional briefing held on Capitol Hill. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) sponsored the briefing.

George L. Wimberly, AERA’s Diversity Officer and editor of the report, provided background information the report. He was joined by Lindsey Wilkinson, Portland State University, who discussed the Educational Achievement and Attainment of LGBTQ Students; and Dorothy L. Espelage, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who examined Bullying & K -12 Schools: Call for Research.

Wimberly explained that the initiative began by examining what we know: looking at content areas such as historical context; K -12 school experiences; higher education and adult achievement; social, legal, and policy issues; secondary data analysis; and field development. The examination sought answers to such questions as what is the state of knowledge about LGBTQ issues in education research, how do we know, what do we know, and what are some of the challenges to doing research on LGBTQ topics. It also provides recommendations for developing research on LGBTQ issues in education.

Wimberly pointed to the state of knowledge including U.S. Census data indicating that there are more than 600,000 same-sex households and 25 percent of those are raising children; a history of stigma and discrimination toward LGBTQ students as well as school administrators, faculty and staff; a school climate in which students report a high level of harassment and school victimization; and homophobia which places students at risk for problems such as expulsion, dropping out, low student achievement connected with negative school climate. Despite the despair, there is hope, Wimberly maintained and pointed to areas of support, including extracurricular activities (e.g., gay-straight alliances), supportive faculty and school administrators, and inclusive curricula with positive representation of LGBTQ people, issues, and history.

Wilkinson addressed the educational achievement and attainment of LGBTQ students, which includes such research questions as:

  • Do LGBTQ students have poorer academic achievement and attainment in middle and high school, relative to non LGBTQ students?
  • Do LGBTQ students experience a disadvantage in post-secondary attainment, relative to non-LGBTQ students?
  • If LGBTQ students perform more poorly and attain less education, do processes such as victimization, school attainment, and emotional distress help explain this?
  • What school level factors shape the educational achievement and attainment of LGBTQ students?
  • Are the labor market returns to educational attainment the same for LGBTQ and non LGBTQ young adults?

She explained that the research seeks the answers to these and other questions through large-scale data sets like the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which provides support for state, territorial, and local education and health agencies to monitor the health risk behaviors among U.S. middle and high school students. Of course, said Wilkinson, the YRBS has its limitations, including the fact that before 2015, inclusion of questions about sexual orientation were optional; there are no questions about gender identity; it does not directly measure educational achievement and attainment; it is not a longitudinal survey, which makes it difficult to determine causal pathways and processes; and questions about sexual orientation are only asked on the high school survey.

A second large-scale data set, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has allowed research to be conducted on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education since 1999. Among the key findings from the research are that victimization contributes to lower academic outcomes and lower self-esteem among LGBTQ students; and school-based supports contribute to lower victimization and better academic outcomes among LGBTQ students. This support comes in the form of the number of teachers or staff supportive of LGBTQ students, a LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum, the presence of a gay-straight alliance, and comprehensive anti-bullying/prevention policy.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), a third large-scale data set, supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development with co-funding from 23 federal agencies and foundations, serves as a data source. Add Health provides rich education data, labor market outcomes, and measures of social context, but it does not provide measures of gender identity or gender nonconformity, LGBTQ-specific school-based supports, or subject-specific achievement tests or teacher evaluations.

In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) supports several large scale data sets, including the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009, Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS). NCES data sets, however, do not include information about LGBTQ status.

According to Wilkinson, there is a need for more appropriate data to answer research questions, including more recent longitudinal data that measures LGBTQ status, individual- and school-level processes, and educational achievement and attainment over time; data that incorporates larger samples of transgender youth and LBGTQ youth of color; and adaptation of current data sets.

Espelage discussed bullying and K-12 schools and the need for research. She pointed out that bullying occurs more frequently among LGBTQ youth in American schools than among students who identify as heterosexual. In the past year, 84.6 percent of LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed and 40.1 percent reported being physically assaulted in school. She explained that a large percentage of this bullying behavior involves the use of homophonic teasing and slurs. According to Espelage, “the pervasiveness of anti-gay language in schools suggests that most school environments are hostile for LGBTQ students and creates negative environments for their heterosexual peers as well.” There is a strong longitudinal association between bullying, homophobic bantering, and sexual harassment perpetration. Youth who bully will be more likely to engage in sexual harassment toward other peers if they use homophobic slurs, Espelage noted.

What reduces victimization? Espelage reported that according to meta-analysis, decreases in rates of victimization were associated with special program elements such as non-punitive disciplinary methods, parent training/meetings, use of videos, cooperative group work, and greater duration and intensity of the program. Peer mediation, contrary to conventional wisdom, she reported, was associated with an increase in victimization. “This unintended consequence is not new,” she emphasized, adding that “scholars have argued for a decade that peer mediation is contraindicated for prevention.”

Espelage highlighted the need for research support for the development and evaluation programs for U.S. youth that address the unique needs of rural, urban, and suburban contexts. Espelage called for educating teachers of all educational levels regarding sexual identity and gender diversity in youth and work to communicate this knowledge and consideration to all students in a developmentally appropriate manner. She also underscored the need for more research to develop and evaluate these teacher trainings on school climate and bullying among all youth.

Additional information is available on the AERA website:

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