Inside IES Research

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A Conversation About Educational Inequality With Outstanding Predoctoral Fellow Marissa Thompson

Each year, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recognizes an outstanding fellow from its Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Programs in the Education Sciences for academic accomplishments and contributions to education research. The 2021 awardee, Marissa Thompson, completed her PhD at Stanford University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow with the Education Policy Initiative at University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. This summer, she joins Columbia University as an assistant professor of sociology. Her work focuses on the relationship between education and socioeconomic and racial inequality over the course of life.

Recently, we caught up with Dr. Thompson and asked her to discuss her research on educational inequality and her experiences as a scholar.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

For a long time, I thought that I wanted to become an engineering professor. I majored in chemical and biomolecular engineering in college and planned to pursue a doctoral degree in engineering after I graduated. Though I was excited about my undergraduate research projects, I was also passionate about diversity and inclusion in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. This led me to spend my free time in college working on programs within the School of Engineering that promoted more equitable access to these majors. At the same time, I began taking some courses outside of the engineering program, which led me to a series of introductory sociology electives and inspired me to think about a career in the social sciences.

My interests in educational inequality stemmed in part from my own experiences and challenges as a Black woman in the sciences, but also from the experiences of my classmates who had to overcome barriers to access these fields. I wanted to have a more direct impact on the policies and programs that help to mitigate racial and socioeconomic inequality in education, which led me to apply for graduate programs in sociology of education.

What inspired you to focus your research on understanding the role of education in shaping inequality?

I began my graduate studies with the goal of focusing more narrowly on access and persistence in STEM fields, but this quickly developed into a broader interest in educational inequality. I was fortunate to work on several projects with advisors and mentors that motivated my interests in educational inequality over the life course—from studying racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps in public school districts across the country to studying how processes of major choice can lead to increased gender segregation across fields. My work seeks to understand how a variety of sources—including structural inequality, policy changes, and individual preferences—are related to disparities in access to quality educational experiences. My goal as a researcher is to understand how patterns of inequality emerge as well as to research the efficacy of policies that might mitigate social inequality. In doing so, I hope to have an impact on reducing educational disparities for future generations.

What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

I think one of the most important ways that we can improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families is to involve a more diverse group of voices in the research process. This includes creating more opportunities for researchers from different backgrounds who may ask questions that are uniquely informed by their own experiences or the experiences of their communities. In addition, I also believe that, as researchers, we have a responsibility to speak to the communities that are affected by the policies and patterns that we influence.  

What advice would you give to emerging scholars that are pursuing a career in education research?

My first piece of advice would be to find mentors and peers in graduate school who can support you. I have benefitted tremendously from the encouragement of my support system, and I have learned so much from my mentors and peers along the way. I would also encourage students from outside of the traditional social sciences to consider research in education. As an undergraduate engineering major, I was initially afraid to take a leap and change disciplines for graduate school, but in retrospect, I’m so glad that I did. At the time, I worried that my skillset and training in a different discipline would be a disadvantage, but I believe that my interdisciplinary background and unique perspective have helped me to grow my research agenda in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. 


This blog was produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow. It is part of an Inside IES Research blog series showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.

LGBTQ+ Education Research: Why I’m Proud to be a Part of It

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In celebration of PRIDE month, three IES training fellows reflect on the state of education research for LGBTQ+ students and what motivates them to pursue this area.

Damon R. Carbajal (he/él) is a community scholar, educator, activist, and alumni of the University of New Mexico, Research Institute for Scholars of Equity (RISE) program, residing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose work focuses on recentering intersectional identities in and out of educational spaces. Souksavanh T. Keovorabouth (they/them), Diné, completed the University of Arizona Pathways to Doctoral Studies in Education-Related Fields and is currently a PhD candidate at both Oregon State University and Macquarie University (Sydney, Australia) as a Cotutelle Student, whose research focuses on the Indigenous urban experience, Two-Spirit wellbeing and Two-Spirit in urban areas, Relocation Act 1950, Native and Queer urbanization, BIPOC masculinities, and missing and murdered Indigenous women. Sarah Rosenbach (she/her) is a PhD candidate in psychology and social intervention at New York University, where she was a fellow in the NYU Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Program in Education Sciences during her first 4 years of graduate study, and is currently based in Honolulu, HI and researching evidence-based ways in which schools and other youth-serving settings can support the healthy development of LGBTQ adolescents.

 

What excites you about education research relevant to LGBTQ+ communities?

Damon R. Carbajal (DRC): As a gay, queer, Chicanx person, I have not had the easiest time in school and often felt I was voiceless. I see research as a powerful tool to help create safer spaces for all in education spaces. This is what keeps me going and what creates my deep connection to my research because I know that it helps to create spaces and opportunities that I did not have. Allowing folks to voice their lived experiences is critical for the growth of academia, research, and individuals. Overall, my excitement comes from the community we form when decentered voices are recentered in holistic ways that project the beauty and resilience of the queer community. This recentering is at the heart of all my work, and the impact is critical.

 

Souksavanh T. Keovorabouth (STK): What excites me is that I am able to bring in my own experience and experiences of other Queer Indigenous people into the light. Many Queer, Trans, and Two-Spirit Indigenous people have been erased, even by our own communities. Two-Spirit is an umbrella term used to signify the vast diverse set of genders, sexes, and sexualities within Indigenous communities pre-colonialization. We use this term to bring that history into the present. I focus on urban Indigenous LGBTQ2S+ communities because many of us have been or are displaced and removed based on our diverse gender, sex, and sexuality selves and we need to (re)establish communities of care. Through our tracing of histories and lineages, we can see that Two-Spirit people are vital to our true restoration of Indigenous sovereignty.

 

Sarah Rosenbach (SR): I am excited for the field to begin to translate this evidence to practice in teams of interdisciplinary researchers who are in partnership with educators and community organizations. Schools are perhaps the single most studied context for LGBTQ+ youth. Together with my collaborators, I have contributed to a growing body of research focused on the state of LGBTQ+ youth experiences in schools. I have been fortunate to work with an amazing team of LGBTQ+ folks in education, psychology, public health, and sociology. The ability to show up to this work as my true self and to work towards improving school experiences for LGBTQ+ youth in community is very meaningful to me. With a groundswell of empirical support building across disciplines, we have reached a critical turning point for action. I am excited for the field to begin to translate this evidence to practice in teams of interdisciplinary researchers who are in partnership with educators and community organizations. I believe that it is time for us to turn to creating and testing school-based prevention, intervention, and health promotion programs that specifically examine – and alter - the ways that schools socialize cisnormativity and heteronormativity in the lives of all youth.

How has being a member of or ally to the LGBTQ+ community influenced your path as researcher?

DRC: As a gay, queer, Chicanx researcher, educator, and activist, I believe that being a member of the LGBTQ+ community has influenced my research in a variety of ways including the research I focus on as well as the idea of even jumping into research. When I first started college, I wanted to be a high school teacher and had not thought about anything else. During undergrad, I had research fellowships and mentorship experiences that helped me realize that I could create more safe spaces and reach more students and educators through a research path. This realization was life altering and allowed me to grow into a researcher whose queer and BIPOC roots grant me insights that are new and authentic because of my social awareness and new perspectives. As a researcher, I can draw upon my life experiences, which include trauma, assault, and other facets of life—facets of my life that are sadly the reality of many who are in the LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.

Because of my identity, I feel I am more likely to pursue topics that have often been overlooked or viewed as taboo. For example, my thesis examined LGBTQIA+ Mexican/x youth experiences of mental health in and out of schooling settings. Highly intersectional research such as this is not heavily represented in the field, except by researchers who are often members of the non-dominant communities. Overall, being an LGBTQ+ researcher can be taxing as I am often the only queer and/or Chicanx person in research spaces, but always highly rewarding because I am able to make a mark in the research world for and by my community.

STK: Being Queer and Nadleeh (Two-Spirit in Navajo language) influences my research because these aspects of me grant me the ability to draw upon stories and experiences to navigate the world outside of western construction of gender, sex, and sexuality. My research journey began in 2016. I was not feeling safe as a Queer, Brown, multiracial person, and I knew that others were feeling the same way, especially as policy debates and political actions, such as those reported by the Fenway Institute, took shape. We were being marginalized and erased, and this impacts mental health. Research indicates that LGBTQ+ youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers and that Indigenous LGBTQ+ youth are 2.5 more likely than their non-Indigenous LGBTQ+ peers. The Trevor Project survey also found that Indigenous youth who were accepted by their family and communities were nearly 60 percent less likely to attempt suicide. These numbers have really fueled the work that I do because I am able to use my voice and scholarship to give back to my communities and address their needs and support them. My identities have and continue to influence my path as a researcher because this is for all my community to move from having to survive to beginning to thrive. When I am done with my PhDs, I aim to continue writing, teaching, and working with my community through my research on Queer, Trans, and Two-Spirit identity, as we are vital to Indigenous futures.

SR: We are seeing a nationwide onslaught of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation aimed at dismantling hard-earned yet tenuous civil rights and coordinated with efforts to dismantle culturally responsive pedagogy and antiracist education. It is critical for all of us, those in the LGBTQ+ community and allies, to speak out in support of all LGBTQ+ youth with our local reporters, school boards, city councils, and state legislatures. But this is just one part of the solution. We must continually ask our LGBTQ+ community, “How may I better serve you?” and let the answers drive our scholarship and our activism. We must partner with movements in antiracist and decolonizing education. Together, we can leverage our scholarship and activism to reimagine our education systems towards justice for all.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants.

LGBTQ+ Education Research: Why I’m Proud of the Potential

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In celebration of PRIDE month, two IES training fellows reflect on the state and future of education research for LGBTQ+ students and those who support them. Erin Gill is a predoctoral fellow in the University of Wisconsin–Madison Interdisciplinary Training Program for Predoctoral Research in the Education Sciences where she is studying the policies and practices that influence LGBTQ+ students K-12 school experiences and well-being. Laura Bellows completed her PhD in public policy at Duke University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Virginia Education Science (VEST) Interdisciplinary Post-Doctoral Training Program. In the fall, she will join the RAND Corporation.

Erin Gill PhotoWhat excites you about education research relevant to LGBTQ+ communities?

Erin Gill (EG): There has never been a more critical moment to focus on the needs of LGBTQ+ youth, and I am excited by education research that aids educators to counter anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments and helps them identify effective practices to support the needs of LGBTQ+ youth.

Our LGBTQ+ students need researchers, policymakers, and educators to understand their lives and experiences and advocate for meaningful change in K-12 schools because they deserve schools free of bullying and harassment where they can see themselves reflected in the lessons and curricula, express themselves and their identities, access facilities, participate in school activities and traditions, and be happy and healthy. Our teachers also need support. Although many educators seem eager to advocate for LGBTQ+ students and their needs, they can’t do so if they fear losing their jobs or are pushed out of schools. Educators, whose jobs may be on the line, need research that backs their LGBTQ+-inclusive practices (for example, inclusive pronoun use, integrating LGBTQ+ voices in lessons, and facilitating discussions about identity). Research can help educators identify effective practices and push back against individuals seeking to restrict LGBTQ+ students’ rights in schools.   

Laura Bellow PhotoLaura Bellows (LB): Conversations on LGBTQ+ issues have shifted dramatically since I first came out in 2003. Today, more youth are coming out at younger ages, and many youth and young adults have rejected binary systems of sexual orientation and gender entirely. However, experiences vary dramatically across the country. In some communities, students are learning about LGBTQ+ communities in the classroom—something I never would have thought possible 20 years ago as a high school student in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the same time, some states are actively pursuing and passing policies meant to marginalize LGBTQ+ students.  In my view, this new context should guide future directions in education research. First, to understand the needs of LGBTQ+ students, researchers need to understand this changing population. Second, we need to understand the impacts of these negative policies on well-being. And third, we need to understand how schools can help support LGBTQ+ students, parents, and school personnel, particularly in states with anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

What types of education research do you think would benefit LGBTQ+ students and communities?

EG: Research on how location and context affect LGBTQ+ students and educator-allies experiences would help schools identify how best to support their LGBTQ+ students.

As a former rural educator, I felt that  LGBTQ+-inclusive policies and practices that work in urban schools may not work for rural LGBTQ+ youth. For example, Gender and Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) are often safe spaces for urban LGBTQ+ youth, but rural LGBTQ+ youth may not be as safe because they may lack anonymity due to the small and tight-knit nature of rural communities. LGBTQ+ students experience vastly different school environments. Some schools protect them from discrimination and harassment, openly talk about gender and sexuality in the classroom, and provide gender-inclusive facilities. At other schools, the students face bullying, never have an opportunity to discuss or express their gender or sexuality, and don’t have access to gender-affirming facilities. We need research on the state, community, and school context that affect LGBTQ+ student experiences and outcomes of LGBTQ+-inclusive practices.

What might be a barrier to conducting education research relevant to LGBTQ+ students and communities?

LEB: One major barrier facing researchers interested in education research and LGBTQ+ communities is a lack of data.

District and state longitudinal data systems enable K-12 education researchers to study a variety of questions about teachers, other school personnel, and students. Because these systems capture the entire population of students and school personnel, they lend themselves well to examining smaller populations. Yet data systems contain almost no information related to LGBTQ+ status. However, we must balance this concern with real concerns about disclosing LGBTQ+ status. LGBTQ+ teachers may be nervous about disclosing in official data systems, given past initiatives to ban LGBTQ+ individuals from teaching or portray LGBTQ+ teachers as predatory. LGBTQ+ students may also feel uncomfortable identifying as LGBTQ+ in their official records. At the same time, students are still exploring and discovering their identities. Students must be able to update their answers to questions around sexual orientation and gender identity in official systems with some frequency if such data are collected.

Despite these concerns, I am hopeful there is a path forward for creating administrative data systems that can both illuminate the dynamic experiences of LGBTQ+ populations in schools and also protect their confidentiality.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants.

 

Gender-Sexuality Alliances as a School Resource for LGBTQ+ Students

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of LGBTQIA+ Pride Month, we interviewed Dr. Paul Poteat, professor at Carolyn A. and Peter S. Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College, about his IES-funded research on Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs)—his motivation, what he’s learned so far, and future work that needs to be done.

What led you to focus on GSAs as a school resource for LGBTQ+ students?

Many LGBTQ+ students continue to experience discrimination at school, but schools are also a place where they can access support and resources from trusted adults and their peers. Gender-Sexuality Alliances (GSAs) have formed as clubs in an estimated 37% of U.S. secondary schools. GSAs aspire to be youth led with advisor support and meet for up to an hour during or after school on a weekly or biweekly basis. They provide a space for LGBTQ+ students and their heterosexual and cisgender peer allies to socialize, support one another, discuss and learn about LGBTQ+ topics, and engage in advocacy and awareness raising to promote more welcoming schools. In these ways, GSAs are in a promising position to reach and support LGBTQ+ students at a large scale.

What do we know about GSAs and student wellbeing? What do we still need to know?

Most GSA research has considered student wellbeing in relation to GSA presence at their school. Students in schools with GSAs report greater perceptions of safety and less victimization than students in schools without GSAs. Among students who are GSA members, many report feeling a sense of empowerment from their involvement.

Although these findings have been encouraging, there are some important limitations to what we know about student experiences in GSAs and how GSAs may promote wellbeing. For instance, GSAs vary to some extent in what they do—they are not standardized programs—and even members in the same GSA can report different experiences. We have less of an understanding of what specific GSA experiences are associated with any beneficial outcomes, especially because most GSA research has relied on cross-sectional data. We still need to identify specific mechanisms by which GSAs may promote wellbeing. It is also unclear whether some members benefit more from their GSA involvement than others.

How is your project adding to our understanding of GSAs?

Our project aims to identify specific practices and experiences in GSAs that predict social-emotional outcomes and academic performance for GSA members over time. We plan to—

  • Focus on perceived support from peers and advisors, leadership roles, involvement in advocacy and awareness-raising efforts, and perceived climate of the GSA. We are looking at these processes in two ways: on a week-to-week basis over an intensive 8-week period of the school year and more broadly at three time points spanning the school year.
  • Identify whether GSA experiences—from meeting to meeting or over the school year—go on to predict greater school belonging, hope, positive affect, and self-worth, which in turn could predict better academic outcomes, such as greater class engagement and lower absenteeism.
  • Consider whether GSA experiences buffer the negative effects of victimization on these outcomes. We have been working with a diverse group of GSAs across the state of Massachusetts, in New York City, and in San Diego.

How could the data from your project be useful for GSAs and inform ongoing research? 

As an Exploration grant, the data from our project could provide a foundation to develop and evaluate programs tailored for GSAs. To do this, we first need a deeper understanding of GSAs and any naturally occurring processes within them that may predict various social-emotional and academic outcomes among members. We can then develop programs GSAs would be interested in adopting that target and enhance these processes with greater precision. On a practical level, our findings could be useful to GSA advisors and student leaders by identifying the types of conversations, activities, and structures to their meetings that could benefit their members. Ultimately, more research in this area could support GSAs as they seek to identify and meet the range of needs and interests of their members, capitalize on the strengths that members bring, and promote their thriving and academic success.


Paul Poteat is a professor in the Counseling, Developmental & Education Psychology Department at Boston College. He conducts research on the school-based experiences of sexual and gender minority youth.

Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and training program officer for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and Emily Doolittle (Emily.Doolittle@ed.gov), NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research.

 

A Lifetime of Learning: A Fellow’s Journey to Improve Literacy for All

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In this guest blog, Dr. Marcia Davidson, an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Georgia State University Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL), shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

Going Back for More

My career path has had many turns, but I’ve always focused on supporting literacy to ensure everyone can access education, no matter their location, age, or current ability. And I apply this to my life, too.

I started as a school psychologist, practicing for 15 years in Washington state, working with students with disabilities aged 3 to 21. I worked with teachers and small groups of students to provide support and additional instruction for those struggling with reading and realized that my training was insufficient to provide effective support. I was able to advocate for children who struggled with reading, but I wanted to know more about the research and the science that inform effective reading instruction. So I went back to school to earn my PhD in special education.

After finishing my degree, my first academic position was teaching special education and elementary education at Western Washington University. Despite being tenured faculty, I left academia to participate in research projects related to Reading First because I wanted to spend more time conducting and supporting research projects. This led to my working on an IES-funded Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research (PCER) project and my deep interest in interventions that improve student learning.

Eventually, my career took more unexpected turns as I was recruited to consult on a USAID/World Bank initiative in reading assessment for low- and middle-income countries, the Early Grade Reading Assessment. My work with this project prompted a significant career change: I moved to Liberia as a senior reading advisor on one of the first pilot early grade reading projects.

I spent the next 10 years working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) on NGO, USAID, and World Bank projects and then worked for USAID. My work focused on early grade reading interventions and support in South and Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2017, I left USAID but continued to support their projects, serving as the senior reading advisor for a scaled early grade reading project in Ghana.

A New Focus

Although my primary focus was supposed to be on children, I found myself drawn in by parents longing to learn themselves. In Liberia, a parent asked whether he could meet with a reading project teacher to learn to read. In Zambia, parents were meeting daily to review the reading lessons of their first-grade children with the hope that they might learn to read and support their children more effectively. In Nepal, a grandmother walked several miles up a mountain to her grandchild’s school so that she could learn to read by his side. Most recently, when I was in Ghana during the COVID outbreak, our team developed a radio reading program for families, and I again saw how excited parents were to work with their children and learn themselves.

I then turned my attention to my own country and realized that many adults in the United States also have literacy gaps and need good reading interventions. We face a reality in which 43 million adults in the United States (about 1 in 5) have very low levels of literacy and may struggle with basic reading comprehension. Of these, nearly 17 million adults could be classified as functionally illiterate. I began to wonder how research for U.S. adults with low literacy might differ from the work I had been doing in low- and middle-income countries and how adult literacy levels vary across countries.

Despite my interest in U.S. adult literacy, I realized that research had changed drastically and that there were new methods, designs, and approaches that I was less familiar with. So I decided to learn more and build new research skills by applying to become an IES postdoctoral fellow in adult literacy at Georgia State University.

Returning for More: A Fellowship to Reskill and Connect the Dots

I started my IES postdoctoral fellowship in the summer of 2021 in the GSU Postdoctoral Training on Adult Literacy (G-PAL) program. Here, I am researching interventions to support U.S. adults who struggle with reading. I want to extend my understanding of the role of morphology in reading acquisition, which I honed while working in Sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia. In the United States and internationally, much of this research focuses on children. Teaching adults to read has often taken a back seat in literacy research, despite the critical need to address adult low literacy. I have seen the difference that learning to read can make in a child’s life, and I believe that learning to read for adults can also be life changing and exciting. For me, it is like closing the circle, from young children who are just discovering the delights of learning to read to adults who long to enrich their lives—and often livelihoods—with improved literacy skills.

Recently, I was offered a position as a senior education advisor to the Africa Bureau at USAID, and I will be leaving G-PAL to support the USAID team. However, improving adult literacy remains a priority to me, and I plan to continue my work on the projects I’ve started with my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Tighe, on a morphology intervention for adults and on an analysis of process data on PIAAC literacy items. I also plan to volunteer at an adult literacy center when I move to Washington, DC for my new position. I am so grateful that I had the extraordinary experience of learning about the literacy needs of and effective interventions for adults who struggle with reading. I have a better understanding about the complexities of adult literacy learning needs and feel new urgency to address the learning barriers so many face. My postdoctoral experience has expanded my knowledge, methodological skills, and commitment. And I am confident that I will apply all that I have learned and continue to learn to my new position and beyond.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.