Category Archives: Research

Black Superwoman Syndrome: What It Is and How Organizations Can Better Support Their Black Female Leaders

In my late 20’s, working as a school leader, I had two surgeries to remove benign tumors despite having an impeccable health record and no family history of tumors. Over my entire career in leadership, I have watched other Black women — leaders I’ve supported, peers, mentors, clients, and friends — struggle with serious physical and mental health challenges, including anxiety, hair loss, eating disorders, depression, and auto-immune diseases.

With the spotlight on issues faced by Black employees during this new racial reckoning, it’s important to elevate Black Superwoman Syndrome. Coined by Dr. Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombe, professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill School of Nursing, the phenomenon includes five major behaviors demonstrated by Black women leaders: obligation to manifest strength, obligation to suppress emotions, resistance to being vulnerable or dependent, determination to succeed despite significantly limited resources, and an obligation to help others. 

This Superwoman-like behavior can be both an asset and a necessary liability to ascend in predominantly white-led workplaces. The relentless drive to dispel negative stereotypes of Black women as “lazy” or “incompetent” has enabled many Black women to thrive in leadership in these spaces. However, once in these leadership roles, Black women often find themselves to be one of the few or only people of color at decision-making tables, which may continue to feed the syndrome. 

The pressure on Black women to juggle and be perfect at all things because of unequal expectations at the intersection of race and gender-based oppression takes a physical and emotional toll. Amani M. Allen (formerly Nuru-Jeter) of the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health describes the toll as “the slow deterioration of our bodies.”

Many articles on this topic list tips Black women can follow to “put down their capes,” but this syndrome is not Black women’s sole responsibility to address. Leaders of organizations can identify the “Superwomen” hiding in plain sight and create the conditions that better support them.

Tresha Ward, partner at Bellwether Education Partners, quote: "Organizational leaders need to reckon with the reality that they may have cultivated a culture where it’s uncomfortable for Black women to express emotions other than contentedness in the name of “professionalism.”

Here are ways I’ve seen this syndrome manifest itself: 

Obligation to manifest strength

There is an expectation to put on a “strong face” even when Black female leaders don’t want to or have the energy to do so. To do otherwise could cause others to question their capabilities. This looks like powering through the day without breaking a sweat; handling crisis after crisis and meeting after meeting; and solving every problem that walks through the door — alone — because that is the expectation many have of them.    Continue reading

New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality.  Continue reading

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

Continue reading

Choosing a College is Both Art and Science: An Introduction to “Match and Fit”

Over the coming months, high school seniors across the country will anxiously wait to hear which colleges have accepted them. And after all the hard work of applying comes another tough step: deciding where to go to college. 

How do young people decide where to go to college? Do they pick the most selective school, or do they prioritize the place where their friends are going? Do they stay close to home or get as far away as possible? Big school or small school? Urban or suburban? Public or private? Greek life or geek life

There are countless factors to weigh, which can make the college selection process feel overwhelming, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to attend college. As counselors, advisers, and mentors to young people, we need to build systems and processes that enable them to make informed postsecondary choices.   

Fortunately there’s a useful framework for considering postsecondary options that’s gaining popularity among high school counselors and frontline staff in college access programs: “match and fit.”

While there is no standard definition, practitioners generally agree on the following working definitions: 

  • Match: The degree to which a student’s academic credentials align with the selectivity of the college or university in which they enroll. Match encompasses the quantitative elements of choosing a postsecondary option; it is more science than art.   
  • Fit: A more nebulous concept that refers to how well a prospective student might mesh with an institution once on campus: socially, emotionally, financially, and otherwise. Fit encompasses the qualitative elements of choosing a postsecondary option; it is more art than science. 

Together, these concepts enable students, families, and college counselors to share a common language when talking about college. A student may technically “match” to a particular institution based on their academic credentials, but then decide that school is not a great “fit” given their desires and interests. Conversely, a student might have their heart set on a college — it may seem like a perfect “fit” — but it may turn out to be a poor “match” when the student’s GPA and test scores are considered.  

Importantly, these concepts can be used to support equity in access for underserved students. Here’s how: Continue reading

Media: “The 2010s May Be The Best Decade Ever in Terms of College Attainment” in The 74

I have a new piece out in The 74 this week on some good news in the education world:

College attainment rates rose just 1 or 2 percentage points per decade for the first half of the 20th century and only began to pick up in the 1970s. Although the most recent data only go through 2018, the 2010s have already seen a gain of 5.1 percentage points, more than the gains in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. If the 2010s ended anything like the decade began, it will easily be the best decade we’ve ever seen in terms of college attainment.

We just went through a decade of stagnant achievement scores, and ideally we’d see improvements in both achievement and attainment. Still, I argue it’s worth celebrating the attainment gains given their link to improved life outcomes for students.

Read the full piece here.