Could open educational resources help queer students?

Blog Post
Oct. 22, 2018

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students often have dramatically different school experiences than their peers. In many cases, they face hostility from teachers and students, discriminatory school policies, and access to few in-school supports. To compound this, they are never taught material that reflects, represents, or validates their identity. As a consequence, LGBTQ students are often less engaged in school, graduate at lower rates, and face much higher rates of mental health conditions than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. Though more and more schools are beginning to recognize this problem, there is little guidance and few resources.

Recognizing LGBTQ-inclusive curricula as a critical step in improving outcomes for all students and especially for queer students, this blog series explores the possibilities for creating and implementing inclusive learning materials, with a focus on leveraging open educational resources (OER). It will explore how OER, which are designed to be easily updated and shared, could provide a new approach to creating more inclusive learning materials and equitable learning environments.

‘Inclusion’ has quickly become a buzzword in recent years, particularly in the context of classroom diversity, equity, and inclusion. With student demographics shifting rapidly, so too are the learning needs that schools must meet. Education leaders face a growing realization that current classrooms, school systems, and especially learning materials are not designed to serve a wide variety of students.

Broadly speaking, minority students have the same needs as any others: the need to feel safe and supported in school, to be respected by their teachers and peers, and to have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the curriculum. For minority students, however, schools do not meet these needs by default; meeting them requires intentional efforts that many schools are not making or are unable to make, especially for students of gender and sexual minorities.

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which compiles the largest collection of LGBTQ student data in the country, released last week their biannual report— and the results are staggering. Their findings show that LGBTQ students who felt supported and engaged at school were likely to maintain higher GPAs, less likely to have missed school in the past month, and less likely to drop out. Unfortunately, 98% of students surveyed reported hearing derogatory remarks at school, including those dually targeted because of other minority identities; 60% reported discriminatory school policies; and 18% were prohibited from discussing or writing about LGBTQ topics. Perhaps most arresting from the report is the fact that these numbers are getting worse: acceptance of LGBTQ students is declining and school policies are becoming more hostile.

As schools start to see these trends play out in classrooms, many are turning to inclusive classrooms as a solution. But inclusivity as an approach, while crucial, presents a unique challenge for queer students. In order to create an inclusive classroom that meets the needs of all students, schools must be able to identify and quantify those students’ needs. To do that, those students must be visible. If schools can’t identify the students they’re trying to serve, they certainly can’t identify the supports they need. But queer students are often not public about the process of coming to terms with their identities, especially at a young age. What’s more, they exist across all other human demographics, and therefore can’t be lumped together under one group that looks or sounds the same. Because of issues around data collection of LGBTQ folks—including safety concerns when self-reporting; changing identities; and institutional bias—many queer students are also unaccounted for in student data.

For these reasons, much of the data that does exist on LGBTQ students, such as GLSEN’s, is self-reported. To compound the bleak outlook for queer students, those in six states (Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas) are subject to “no promo homo” laws. Such statutes prohibit teachers from even mentioning LGBTQ identities in the classroom. Not only then are students told the challenges queer people face are invalid, but they hear this message from the school policies that govern them, the teachers who educate them, and the material they’re taught.

Recognizing the power of inclusive learning material to address this problem, at least two states are exploring solutions through gender-inclusive history and social science curricula. Gender-inclusive, in this sense, is a broad term for curricula and other learning materials that teach about the lived experiences of a wide range of LGBTQ people and identities.

In 2016, California became the first state to pass an inclusive history-social science framework to guide the creation of new textbooks that cover LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. The 2016 vote came after the state’s passage of the FAIR Education Act in 2011, and just this month, teachers in California are using the textbooks for the first time. The publishing process was arduous, in part because it required multiple committees of curriculum experts, history advisors, and LGBTQ advocates to review and revise the new content. The resulting material is groundbreakingly comprehensive and now published in textbooks throughout the state. Unfortunately, however, it’s proprietary and therefore not available to other states looking implement a similar curriculum. What’s more, it will likely not be updated anytime soon, given the cost and process required to do so.

Following California’s lead, the Illinois Senate earlier this year passed a measure requiring schools in the state to teach LGBTQ history— with one key difference. The proposal in Illinois would require schools to teach a distinct unit on queer history and identities rather than embed this content into existing PreK-12 material. Despite the difference in approach, the measure faced the same challenges as in California: cost, guidance, and logistics. Many states looking to adopt similar curricula don’t know where to find content or implementation guidance, and when they do, the exorbitant cost of printing new textbooks (that quickly become outdated) is prohibitive.

These challenges point to a ripe opportunity for open educational resources. OER are free and openly-licensed teaching and learning materials that can be shared, downloaded and edited by anyone. Unlike proprietary textbooks, OER allow teachers and school administrators to access content for free, tailor it around the specific needs of their classroom, and find guidance for talking about the content in the classroom. This presents a unique opportunity for districts, schools, and educators who want to incorporate gender-inclusive material but don’t know where to start.

Last month, in the New America Weekly, our institution’s magazine, my colleagues and I highlighted EngageNY as a popular example of how to leverage OER to enable more inclusive learning opportunities for students. EngageNY is a digital repository originally created for New York educators (but used by educators around the country) that houses free, editable, and Common Core-aligned material for PreK-12 language arts and math instruction, including scaffolding instructions for English language learners. Though there are currently no similar OER available for LGBTQ inclusion, a strong case can be made for interested states to utilize OER in this way.

This blog series will make that case, exploring ways to leverage OER to create more equitable learning opportunities for all students by incorporating LGBTQ material. As they are now, many schools aren’t equipped to be inclusive of queer students, and a big part of that problem centers on schools’ limited access to high-quality materials. What’s more, lessons that aren’t queer-inclusive offer students an incomplete history and a fragmented understanding lived experiences. OER can and should be a way to address this challenge.

Related Topics
Digital Media and Learning Open Learning