May 26, 2016

Really NYT? Harmful Stereotypes About Women and Math?

Hidden Figures

Image from “Hidden Figures” – from

I’m not a big movie buff, but I’ve been fascinated by Hidden Figuresthe forthcoming film about the largely unknown African-American women mathematicians and engineers whose calculations were crucial to enabling the Apollo moon missions. Their contributions are particularly monumental since they came at a time when segregation and racism constrained educational and professional opportunities for so many black Americans. So I was excited to read this weeks’ New York Times profile of the movie.

That said, I couldn’t help being put off by how the article reported on the math aversion of the film’s leads. The opening sentence reads:

Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress from playing two of the most important mathematicians the world hasn’t ever known.

The article continues to reference Henson’s and Spencer’s discomfort with math as if it’s slightly endearing, without ever questioning the educational and life experiences that might have led these two highly accomplished women to hate math.

Why is it acceptable and cute for grown adults to say they’re not comfortable with math? Why do we treat discomfort with math as something to be taken for granted rather than the result of our education system’s long-running failure to teach math effectively, combined with low expectations for women, girls, and students from historically underserved racial/ethnic groups and low-income families? Continue reading

May 25, 2016

The Child Development Argument for a U.S. Paid Parental Leave Policy

pg-toddler-bedtime-routines-toddler-reading-fullIn April, San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to provide six weeks fully-paid leave for new parents. While this is ground-breaking for an American city, it doesn’t rate well against international norms. In Japan, new mothers receive 58 weeks parental leave, and new fathers receive 52 weeks parental leave. In Korea, new parents of either gender receive 52 weeks parental leave.

Japan and Korea’s parental leave policies signal that both countries understand the critical importance of parent-child interaction and their role in cognitive development. Our country’s lack of a national parental leave policy illustrates that we have not internalized this lesson. The U.S. should embrace parental leave policies as a mechanism for improving cognitive development and academic achievement.

In the United States, we take a fairly narrow approach to improving our education system. We view education as the formal progression from kindergarten to twelfth grade — and ideally beyond to higher education. But brain development begins long before a child sits down on a reading rug and learns to grasp a pencil. While the U.S. has begun to embrace the importance of early childhood education in the form of public pre-k, our lack of uniform parental leave policy impedes early cognitive development for many children and increases the likelihood they will struggle during K-12 education.

Years of neuroscience research provide many clues on how to improve early childhood development, which in turn will influence a child’s academic trajectory. Child development specialists have proven that the environment of a child’s earliest years can have effects that last a lifetime. By the time a child turns two, the structures of his brain that will influence long-term learning are mostly formed. In the first months and years of life, babies learn the contours of the world through their experiences with the adults surrounding them. A baby’s early relationships, especially with his parents, shape the architecture of his developing brain and his cognitive development. As a result, parenting explains 40 percent of the income-related cognitive differences between children at age four.

Emerging research reveals that stronger parental leave policies have positive, long-term effects on a child’s success in school. In fact, an American student’s academic success is deeply tied to his socioeconomic status, far more than a student in Australia, Britain and Canada — all of which offer up to a year parental leave. A uniform U.S. approach to parental leave could help narrow the achievement gap in the US.

While major U.S. corporations have begun to offer more generous leave programs, and cities and states have begun to consider parental leave policies, too few new parents in the U.S. have access to paid leave. In fact, only 13% of new mothers have access.

The U.S. should be embarrassed by our global rankings. Our country is the only advanced economy that doesn’t mandate maternity leave for its workers, and one of nine OECD countries that have no leave policies in place for fathers. Additionally, the U.S. is one of two counties out of 185 listed by the International Labor Organization that do not have a national law providing paid parental leave (the other is Papua New Guinea). 

It’s time for the U.S. to rethink the way we approach parental leave and develop a uniform policy, instead of depending on businesses and individual cities to make small changes in the right direction.

May 24, 2016

How Universal Pre-k Broke Subsidized Child Care in D.C.

cribsChild-care costs for infants and toddlers (ages 0-2) in DC are among the highest in the nation — over $23,000 for center-based care for infants. For families for whom that would be almost half their annual income, subsidized child care is increasingly hard to get, and pre-k might be partly to blame. I am a huge fan of D.C.’s investments in high-quality pre-k for three and four year olds, but market impacts of booming pre-k enrollment have made it tougher for child-care providers to accept infants and toddlers at subsidized rates, even in neighborhoods with few high-income families.

Here’s what happened, from a cost-modeling study from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):*

  • Caring for infants and toddlers is more expensive than caring for three- and four-year-olds. More staff are needed, and more regulations have to be followed in order to meet licensing requirements and qualify as a subsidized child care provider.
  • Child-care subsidies are higher for infants and toddlers, but they’re not nearly enough to cover the full cost of operating a high-quality program. So providers need additional sources of revenue to break even.
  • Serving more three- and four-year-olds is one way to narrow the cost gap while continuing to serve infants and toddlers at subsidized rates. Even with mixed ages, it is still much easier to break even by serving families paying market rates.

What the cost-modeling study doesn’t explicitly say is that school-based pre-k makes the mixed-ages strategy less viable. With 76% of three- and four-year-olds in school-based pre-k, the market for child care in those age groups is now very small. In neighborhoods with higher-income families, child-care providers can stop accepting subsidies, charge (insanely high) market rates, and still have long wait lists. At the same time, in neighborhoods where no one can pay $23,000 for child care, meeting high-quality standards for infants and toddlers with subsidies alone is nearly impossible. As a result, providers are more likely to cut quality in order to cut costs, shut down, or operate illegally. According to information currently available, 88 licensed child-care providers in the whole city accept subsidies and offer full-time infant and toddler care, and only about a third of those earned a “gold” quality rating. If a family needs things like flexible drop-off times or services for disabilities, the options are even scarcer.

Pre-k access and child-care costs are both getting more attention on a local and national scale. But, few media stories point out how intertwined pre-k and child care are in the early care and education market, and how changes to one will impact the other. As more cities look to expand pre-k, access to child care for younger children shouldn’t accidentally take a hit when pre-k thrives, and infant and toddler subsidies should match the cost of high-quality care.

*Disclosure: I am a former OSSE employee, but had no involvement in this study or child-care and pre-k policies while I was there.

Correction: The cost of an infant in a child care center in D.C. is approximately $23,000. The $40,000 number originally stated is the estimated cost for an infant and a four year old combined. Source.

Moneyball for Head Start — Join Us June 14

In January, my colleague Ashley LiBetti Mitchel and I partnered with Results for America, the National Head Start Association, and the Volcker Alliance to publish Moneyball for Head Start: A report on using data, evidence, and evaluation to improve outcomes for Head Start children and families.

As Congress turns its attention to Head Start post-ESSA, and the administration prepares to release revised Head Start Performance Standards, our four organizations are partnering again to host an interactive panel discussion on the ideas in Moneyball for Head Start for Congressional staff and other Washington, D.C.-area policy analysts, practitioners, and stakeholders.

I hope you’ll join us for this lively conversation about Moneyball for Head Start on June 14th from 3:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C.

You’ll learn about the nine concrete steps Congress and the Administration can take now to better deliver early childhood education and services to over one million children living in poverty.

Space is limited, so RSVP by June 7 to reserve your seat. 

Brad Pitt

“Moneyball,” Sony Pictures








May 19, 2016

Teachers Union Leaders Support Equity (in Theory) Or, Why We Can’t Have Nice Things In Education

How should public policies address inequities across schools and districts? American Federation of Teacher President Randi Weingarten says we hold schools accountable for how much money they have and the types of programs they build with that money. Testifying before the Senate in February, she articulated her vision for accountability systems:

Accountability systems should measure and reflect this broader vision of learning by using a framework of indicators for school success centered on academic outcomes, opportunity to learn, and engagement and support. For example, the AFT recommends academic outcomes measured by assessments, progress toward graduation, and career and college readiness. Opportunity-to-learn indicators should include curriculum access and participation, sufficient resources, and measures of school climate.

Yesterday Weingarten testified again in front of the Senate, this time against a proposed rule that would address funding disparities within districts. The proposed rule, called “supplement not supplant,” would require districts to spend at least as much money on poor students as they do on non-poor students. (For more on the proposed rule and the politics behind it, read this Kevin Carey primer.) Weingarten spoke out against the rule in a piece last month, writing:

ESSA specifically outlines the difference in spending between schools that receive federal Title I funds — schools with high concentrations of students in poverty — and those that don’t. But when it comes to equitable spending, you don’t want to insist on a dollar-for-dollar comparison.

Taken together, Weingarten is arguing we should hold schools accountable for resource equity, but not actually take any steps to alleviate funding inequities within a district.

Weingarten is not alone in this position. Here’s National Education Association President Lily Eskelson Garcia speaking to NPR about her vision for accountability:

But we also pushed on. … You left out of this thing called accountability that the politicians should be held accountable for actually giving an educator what he or she needs to do his or her job.

That was what 1965 and [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] was all about. It was an acknowledgement that states weren’t doing a very good job on equal opportunity. The extra resources have been left out of the whole accountability debate….

On this dashboard, we want you to have to measure service and supports.

Who has access to that AP class and who doesn’t even have access to recess?

Who’s got a school nurse? Where are the services and the broad range of programs that a child should have, like the arts, like foreign languages?

How would a school purchase all these services, supports, AP programs, nurses, etc.? Goods and services costs money, but, like Weingarten, Garcia doesn’t want to address within-district disparities either. Education Week live-tweeted Garcia’s testimony at the same Senate hearing yesterday:


The distinction that Weingarten and Garcia are making, but that they’re unable to say publicly, is that they support equitable funding across districts but not within them. These are separate issues, but they both contribute to school funding disparities.

As progressives, it makes sense that union leaders would support equity in general, but there’s no good reason for why that moral impulse should stop at school district borders. Instead, this seeming contradiction can be explained by the fact that fixing within-district disparities would inevitably touch on issues of teacher compensation and teacher placement that are under the purview of locally negotiated teacher labor contracts. Districts could address within-district inequities in lots of ways — they could offer higher salaries to teachers in poorer schools, they could have lower class sizes in poorer schools, or they could expand other services within poorer schools — but local teachers’ union contracts often prohibit all of these policy options.

Contrary to what Weingarten and Garcia prefer, equity is a better fit for funding conversations than it is in the accountability space. Equity is fundamentally about fairness and resources, and it should be a funding decision, not something we hold individual schools accountable for. Providing additional resources to lower-income schools would help compensate for their greater disadvantages, and we should allow local communities to decide how best to allocate those resources while holding them accountable for their results. In contrast, placing equity into the accountability context would put state policymakers in the role of telling districts or schools how to spend their money, forcing all schools to spend the same amount of money on the same things.

Moreover, a school  would be the wrong entity to hold accountable for resources. A school’s resources — everything from teacher salaries to curriculum to non-academic support programs — affect the quality of education it’s able to deliver, but schools have no power to tax residents, and things like teacher salaries and teacher placement policies are determined at the district level. It might be important to consider how well a given school is performing with its level of resources, but it wouldn’t make sense, for example, to hold a school principal accountable for something he or she can’t control. States and districts are responsible for funding and resources, so those are the places we should be looking to address inequity.