Why Kids Can’t Write: A Hot Topic That Is More Complex Than It Appears

By Natalie Wexler
Education Journalist and Trustee, Omega Foundation

A recent story in the New York Times — titled “Why Kids Can’t Write”— sparked almost 1500 comments and much discussion on social media. Clearly, it struck a nerve.

Unfortunately, the article failed to explain why kids can’t write — especially kids who are low-income, learning-disabled, or still learning English. The story highlighted an organization called The Writing Revolution, which trains teachers in a method of writing instruction, but it presented that method — inaccurately — as focusing solely on grammar rules.

As board chair of The Writing Revolution and co-author of a recently published book of the same name, I know the method is as much a way of teaching content and fostering analytical thinking as it is a method of teaching basic writing skills.

Writing is the most difficult thing we ask students to do, and for too long we’ve assumed they’ll simply “pick it up.” Most don’t. As The Writing Revolution method recognizes, teachers need to break the writing process down into manageable chunks. And students need to write about what they’re learning–not about the amusement park they visited on Saturday.

The failure of education reformers to pay attention to writing is part of a larger failure to focus on the crucial question of what schools are actually teaching. That failure may be one reason reform efforts have made so little progress. But with new research emerging on the positive impact of a strong curriculum, things are beginning to change.

To learn more about these promising developments, please join me and two distinguished panelists, Barbara Davidson and Matthew Chingos, at the third session of WRAG’s 2017 Public Education Learning Series, “Curriculum: The Missing Ingredient in Education Reform,” on September 28th.

Friday roundup – June 13 through June 17, 2016

– The Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation has made a $500,000 investment in Our Region, Your Investment. (Daily, 6/16)

– The Putting Racism on the Table learning series may be over, but the lessons will endure. In this blog post, Julie Wagner of CareFirst and Terri Copeland of PNC shared some of their deepest insights and major takeaways from the series. (Daily, 6/13)

– Natalie Wexler, trustee of the Omega Foundation, explained how schools can better teach kids to read. (Hint: it’s not by teaching reading comprehensive strategies.) (Daily, 6/14)

– Some Alexandria City Public School students are alleging  “excessive, discriminatory and reckless approach[es] to discipline” from the school system. The Kojo Nnamdi Show explores those claims and the supporting research behind the students’ argument. (WaPo, 6/3 and WAMU, 6/16)

– The Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers will be co-hosting a national teleconference for funders on Wednesday, June 22 at 11:00 am ET, for funders concerned about the Orlando tragedy and how best they may respond. Register for the call co-hosted by ABFE, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Change Philanthropy, AAPIP, and Hispanics in Philanthropy.

– WRAG’s colleague organization, the Florida Philanthropic Network, posted a list of resources for those who want to provide financial assistance to those affected by the mass shooting in Orlando.

Wells Fargo announced a donation of $300,000 toward victims and community recovery through the OneOrlando fund, set up by the City of Orlando and administered by the Central Florida Foundation.

– The Council on Foundations shared a resource guide created by Funders for LGBTQ Issues featuring Orlando’s local LGBTQ social profit organizations and fundraising efforts for victims.

– The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region has also shared resources for those who want to help.


Senior Manager, Programs | Grantmakers for Effective Organizations | Deadline: 06/17/2016
Program Officer | Washington Area Women’s Foundation | Deadline: 06/19/2016
Associate | Innovation Network, Inc. | Deadline: 07/01/2016
Research Assistant | Innovation Network, Inc. | Deadline: 07/01/2016
Philanthropic Services Associate | The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region
Grants Manager | The Norman & Ruth Rales Foundation
Community Impact Director | Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing
Senior Communication Consultant | Kaiser Permanente
Part Time Bookkeeper/Accountant | ACT for Alexandria
Associate Director | Arabella Advisors
Director, Corporate Philanthropy | Council on Foundations
D.C. PrEP for Women Project Coordinator | Washington AIDS Partnership
Visit WRAG’s Job Board for the latest job openings in the region’s social sector.


Click the image below to access WRAG’S Community Calendar. To have your event included, please send basic information including event title, date/time, location, a brief description of the event, and a link for further details to: myers@washingtongrantmakers.org.

This just may be the sweetest Internet search ever conducted.

– Ciara

New report closely examines racial and ethnic incarceration disparities in each state

A new report examines the rates of incarceration for whites, African Americans, and Hispanics state-by-state, finds three contributing factors to the racial and ethnic disparities in those rates, and makes some recommendations for reform. (Sentencing Project, 6/14)

Truly meaningful reforms to the criminal justice system cannot be accomplished without acknowledgement of racial and ethnic disparities in the prison system, and focused attention on reduction of disparities. Since the majority of people in prison are sentenced at the state level rather than the federal level, it is critical to understand the variation in racial and ethnic composition across states, and the policies and the day-to-day practices that contribute to this variance. Incarceration creates a host of collateral consequences that include restricted employment prospects, housing instability, family disruption, stigma, and disenfranchisement.

Related: In the most recently released video of WRAG’s Putting Racism on the Table series, James Bell, J.D., founder and executive director of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, discussed mass incarceration and how structural racism, white privilege, and implicit bias collide within the criminal justice system.

OUR REGION, YOUR INVESTMENT | Our Region, Your Investment is gaining traction with local investors, with a recent $500,000 investment from the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation. Says Joshua Bernstein, president of the foundation (Daily, 6/16):

The Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation is working to address the deficit in housing affordability in the D.C. area. An investment in the Enterprise Community Impact Note aligns our investment strategy with our mission and leverages our impact.  We are grateful for the opportunity that Our Region, Your Investment has created to invest funds in ways that promote additional investment in housing solutions.

COMMUNITY/LGBT/PHILANTHROPY | Following the recent tragedy in Orlando, a number of WRAG members have organized efforts to provide support to victims and their families or share valuable resources with those serving LGBT communities. Wells Fargo has announced a donation of $300,000 toward victims and community recovery through the OneOrlando fund, set up by the City of Orlando and administered by the Central Florida Foundation. The Council on Foundations has shared a resource guide created by Funders for LGBTQ Issues featuring Orlando’s local LGBTQ social profit organizations and fundraising efforts for the victims, and the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region has also shared resources for those who want to help.

EDUCATION/DISCRIMINATION/VIRGINIA | Students at Alexandria’s public schools are bringing to light what they describe as “excessive, discriminatory and reckless approach[es] to discipline” from the school system. Today, The Kojo Nnamdi Show explores those claims and the research that supports their argument. (WaPo, 6/3 and WAMU, 6/16)

Related: On Thursday, July 7, the third installment of WRAG’s Public Education Speaker Series (supported by The Omega Foundation and the Tiger Woods Foundation) tackles the topic of racial and gender disparities in school discipline, with Professor Anne Gregory of Rutgers University. WRAG members can click here to register.

ARTS/CULTURE African American Museum prepares for ‘a mini-inauguration’ (WaPo, 6/15)

PUBLIC HEALTHGun Violence ‘A Public Health Crisis,’ American Medical Association Says (NPR, 6/14)

Going back to school is tough at any age, but imagine going back to the 10th grade at age 68! This grandfather shows us it’s never too late.

– Ciara

Constitutional convention underway in the District

DISTRICT | Yesterday marked the start of the three-day Constitutional Convention for New Columbia to hash out a proposed state constitution for D.C. (WAMU, 6/13):

The ultimate goal is to produce a state constitution for D.C., which would then be put to voters in November for approval and submitted to Congress next year as part of a formal petition for statehood.
Mayor Muriel Bowser and members of the New Columbia Statehood Commission say any and all residents can offer amendments to the proposed constitution during the convention, and that the process is moving so quickly because they want to be able to present a statehood petition to Congress early next year. The hope is that November’s elections will usher in a new Democratic majority, and an unprecedented opportunity to finally become the 51st state.

Individuals and organizations can submit comments to the commission here.

PHILANTHROPY | WRAG’s colleague organization, the Florida Philanthropic Network, has posted a list of resources for those who want to provide financial assistance to those affected by the mass shooting in Orlando. Funders for LGBTQ Issues also has a comprehensive roundup of ways funders can help.

– The latest Giving USA report finds that giving was up 4 percent in 2015 over 2014, for a total of $373.3 billion. (Chronicle, 6/14)

– In a special post for the Daily, Natalie Wexler, trustee of the Omega Foundation, lays out how schools can better teach kids to read. (Hint: it’s not by teaching reading comprehensive strategies.) The article sums up the latest event in WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Series, which featured Dan Willingham, who studies the science of learning. (Daily, 6/14)

– New research examines the role teachers play in fostering or hindering interracial friendships among kids. (Atlantic, 6/14)

HOUSING/HEALTH | The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation explores how partnering with the housing sector can improve health. (RWJF, 6/8)

Related: Hey, WRAG has done that too!

WORKFORCE | With Minimum Wage Fight Over, D.C. Activists Hope To Eliminate Tipped Wage (WAMU, 6/13)

RACISM | Google faulted for racial bias in image search results for black teenagers (WaPo, 6/10)

CSR | Deloitte Survey Finds That a Mere 30 Percent of Resumes Include Volunteering, Despite the Known Benefits to Career Advancement (CSRwire, 6/10)

SPECIAL FOR WRAG MEMBERS | This year WRAG is proud to partner with Independent Sector on their 2016 conference, New Frontiers (November 16-18 in D.C.) WRAG members can save $500 when registering for the conference – and save up to $1,050 if they register by June 19. Email Rebekah Seder to get the discount code!


– Rebekah

How funders can support students to become better readers

By Natalie Wexler
Trustee, The Omega Foundation

Standardized reading tests “are really knowledge tests in disguise,” according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. That helps explain why students from highly educated families do so much better on those tests than other students.

Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor who has written extensively about the science of learning, spoke at the second event in WRAG’s Public Education Speaker Series earlier this month.

Willingham explained that authors inevitably leave out information when they write, assuming that readers will fill in gaps with their knowledge. Take these two sentences: “Tricia spilled her coffee. Dan leapt up to get a rag.” The author assumes readers will know that coffee makes a mess, and rags can be used to clean up.

Designers of standardized reading tests know some students have more knowledge than others about certain topics. To control for that, tests include passages on a variety of topics.

The result, as studies have shown, is that students with broad general knowledge do best on standardized tests. They’re also better equipped to understand a newspaper—or high school and college texts.

To ensure that students acquire knowledge, Willingham said, schools need well-rounded, logically sequenced curricula, beginning as early as possible. But many schools have narrowed the elementary curriculum to reading and math, pushing out history and science. While students from educated families continue to acquire knowledge of the world at home, others fall further behind.

So science, history, and art aren’t extras that can wait until after kids learn to read. To become readers, kids need exposure to those subjects as early as possible.

What can funders do to ensure kids are getting the well-rounded curriculum they need? First, take a look at the information available on the website of the Knowledge Matters Campaign. Then check the programs you’re funding to see if their curricula give kids the systematic exposure to rich content that builds knowledge—not just one book on a topic like sea mammals, but immersion in that topic for weeks at a time.

If a school or program is focusing primarily on reading comprehension “strategies” and jumping from one topic to another, students aren’t getting the kind of foundation that will enable them to do well in high school and beyond.

WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Learning Series is sponsored by the Omega Foundation, with additional support from the Tiger Woods Foundation. The next session, on July 7, will focus on addressing gender and racial disparities in school discipline. Education funders: register for the session here.

Few transit options for the region’s lower-income riders

With a year’s worth of maintenance slated to take place throughout the Metrorail system, the impact is expected to be felt by most in the region. Those earning less than $30,000 annually, however, may be hit the hardest with fewer options for teleworking or affordable commutes to work. (City Lab, 5/19)

Among the 11 percent of Metrorail customers who earn less than $30,000 per year, many work low-wage, hourly shifts that don’t offer the option to telework. These riders can’t necessarily afford the convenience of a cab, an Uber, or even a smartphone to hail one. These riders still need to be able to get to their jobs, and for 29 hours in March, it was a lot harder for some.

– Natalie Wexler – education blogger/editor of Greater Greater Education and DC Eduphile, and trustee of the Omega Foundation  discusses the challenges in achieving reading success for low-income students. On June 2, Dr. Willingham, psychology professor at the University of Virginia, will dive further into the role of background knowledge in reading comprehension and the persistent achievement gap among affluent and low-income students. (Daily, 5/23)

– Does Mindfulness Actually Work in Schools? (Atlantic, 5/20)

 The Citi Foundation announced the 40 social profit organizations selected as inaugural recipients of their Community Progress Makers Fund – a $20 million grant initiative supporting community organizations leading urban transformation efforts that create economic opportunities for low-income households and communities. D.C. is one of six U.S. cities with organizations that were selected, such as: Arlington Partnership for Affordable Housing; Capital Area Asset Builders; Enterprise Community Partners Mid-Atlantic; Latino Economic Development Center; and LIFT

– The Center for Nonprofit Advancement has announced Higher Achievement as the winner of their 2016 AIM (Advancement in Management) Award, along with A-SPAN and National Children’s Alliance receiving honorable mentions. Pepco, Capital One Bank, and the Rotary Club of Washington, DC were sponsors of the award. Award recipients will also host an informative best practices session on May 24 at 10:00 am.

IMMIGRATION/POVERTY | Many of the young, recent Central American immigrants to the Washington region find that post-traumatic stress and poverty, along with attending high school, can result in a difficult cycle. (WAMU, 5/19)

– With a growing number of students showing signs of mental health problems at school, educators are struggling to meet their needs. WAMU and nprED have presented a series on the challenges and possible solutions to approaching mental health issues in children. (WAMU, 5/23)

Due to a several challenges, the federal Summer Food Service Program – aimed at providing meals to children from low-income families during school break – only ends up reaching around 15 percent of those eligible. In places like Silver Spring, MD, for example, some children may have a hard time qualifying for such benefits when low-income housing is often in close proximity to affluent neighborhoods. (City Lab, 5/20)

–  Should Pediatricians Ask Parents If They’re Poor? (NPR, 5/18)

DISTRICT | The Washington Post explores the surge in homicides in D.C.’s ward 7. (WaPo, 5/21)

We all need to get adequate sleep, and trees are (possibly) no different.

– Ciara

Improving reading scores is about a whole lot more than teaching kids to read

by Natalie Wexler
Trustee, The Omega Foundation

Why is it harder to raise reading scores than math scores for students from low-income families? And why do kids who seem to read well in elementary school then struggle with grade-level text in middle and high school?

For decades, most elementary schools have taught reading as a skill: children have practiced reading comprehension strategies like “finding the main idea” or “making inferences” on simple stories. The theory has been that it doesn’t matter what students are reading, as long as they’re reading something. And in many elementary schools, especially those serving low-income students, the curriculum has been narrowed to “the basics:” reading and math.

But reading comprehension is highly dependent on background knowledge – as Daniel Willingham, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, will explain at the second event in WRAG’s Public Education Speaker Series on June 2. If students don’t learn about history, science, and the arts in elementary school, they’ll be at a tremendous disadvantage in high school, when they encounter texts that assume a lot of knowledge and vocabulary they don’t have. That’s particularly true for low-income students, who are far less likely to acquire academic knowledge at home.

Willingham – an accessible and engaging speaker as well as the author of several popular books – was recently cited in a speech by Secretary of Education John B. King. “We know from decades of research from folks like Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia that knowledge matters for reading success,” King said. “It is not about reading vs. science and social studies.”

Willingham’s talk will shed light on why the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income students hasn’t narrowed in decades (in fact, some say it’s wider than ever), why it widens during school years, and what it will take to begin to close it.

WRAG’s 2016 Public Education Speaker Series is generously supported by The Omega Foundation, with additional support from the Tiger Woods Foundation. The series touches on a variety of critical topics facing students today. Education funders should click here to learn more about the series and to registerPlease, note that these programs are open to grantmakers only.