Tag: Natalie Wexler

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

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.

Even a small amount of savings can make a difference for families

A new Urban Institute report explores the relationship between the economic health of cities and the financial health of its residents. While it’s no surprise that having wealthier families leads to wealthier cities, the study looks at how families experiencing hardships with even a small amount of savings can avoid spiraling into instability and creating greater costs for municipalities. (City Lab, 4/26):

Hardship outcomes matter to cities. Eviction is a leading cause of homelessness, especially for families with children. Eviction also leads some families to seek out substandard living conditions. Residential instability limits opportunities for children and youths. Missed utility payments, another form of hardship, is a cost for municipalities. So are public benefits.


Financial insecurity is a problem for families that can take the form of food insecurity, poor health outcomes, and homelessness. The Urban Institute’s research shows that a family’s financial insecurity is also a city’s problem. When families without savings suffer income disruptions (which are common), they may turn to public benefits. Or they may turn to more expensive forms of support. Or they may suffer. All of these outcomes at the family level detract from a city’s overall financial health.

– Ahead of WRAG’s upcoming Brightest Minds event featuring author and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University Eldar Shafir on May 18WRAG’s Philanthropy Fellow Hannah Davis explains the notion of the “scarcity trap,” and why having too little is a big deal. (Daily, 4/26)

– Opinion: Natalie Wexler, education blogger/editor of Greater Greater Education and DC Eduphile, and trustee of the Omega Foundation, explores why it’s so important for decision makers to stop viewing reading as the “broccoli” that low-income students must eat before getting to the “dessert”- art, history, music and more. (DC Eduphile, 4/18)

– The Growing College-Degree Wealth Gap (Atlantic, 4/25)

–  Heroin epidemic worsens in Virginia (WTOP, 4/25)

– Suicide rates are on the rise for every age group under 75, with girls between the ages of 10 and 14 experiencing the highest percent increase. Economic stagnation, drug use, lack of health coverage, and even earlier puberty ages are counted as possible reasons for depression that leads to more suicides. (WAMU, 4/21)

– Do Local Governments Have a Role to Play in Mental Health? (City Lab, 4/19)

– Americans for the Arts delivers their sixth and final publication of the National Arts Index, an annual report on the health and vitality of arts and culture in the U.S.

– With a number of recent transitions in the District’s dance scene, here’s a look at what’s on the horizon in the near future. (Dance Magazine, 4/15)

AudioIs Jazz Sustainable In Washington, D.C.? (WAMU, 4/21)

Have you read any of these remarkable book titles?

– Ciara

Very few U.S. neighborhoods are balanced

According to a recent analysis, just 14 percent of U.S. neighborhoods are considered “balanced” – meaning that they are both affordable and that they offer good quality public and private services. (WAMU, 1/27)

Across the country, just 14 percent of neighborhoods manage to be at once affordably priced, walkable and near decent schools. And many of those neighborhoods exist in only two cities: Washington and Seattle, according to a new analysis released Wednesday by the real estate brokerage Redfin.

The findings suggest a substantial mismatch between the neighborhoods where people say they want to live and the homes actually available to them.

– With a record number of Americans shelling out more than half of their incomes each month for rent, the urgent need for affordable housing is difficult to ignore. Enterprise Community Partners‘ Make Room campaign aims to bring awareness to the struggles of families who rent through private living room concerts, in the tradition of rent parties. (NPR, 1/27)

– David Biemesderfer, the new president and CEO of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, shares why he is excited to take the helm of the growing organization and to support the work of WRAG and our regional association colleagues in his new role. (Daily, 1/27)

– The Community Foundation for Northern Virginia has released their third edition of GOOD BUSINESS, a publication that celebrates the impact of corporate giving in Northern Virginia and features stories of local businesses that practice corporate social responsibility in ways that benefit the local community. (CFNOVA, 1/26)

– Opinion: Natalie Wexler, education blogger/editor of Greater Greater Education and DC Eduphile, and trustee of the Omega Foundation, explores how the British government has been supporting an American education reform theory that has been slow to catch on right here in the U.S. (DC Eduphile, 1/19)

Lowering The Bar For The New GED Test (NPR, 1/27)

RACIAL EQUITY | If You Want Clean Water, Don’t Be Black in America (City Lab, 1/26)

Check out some real ingenuity when it comes to post-blizzard parking.

– Ciara

The next “great entrepreneurial city”

AOL co-founder Steve Case recently discussed what he predicts will be the “third wave” of the Internet, in which all areas of life will be more seamlessly connected, and how he thinks Greater Washington’s talent pool could shape the region into one of the great entrepreneurial hubs with better coordination between the business and tech communities. (WBJ, 1/12)

[…] the community must continue to build networks between the tech and business communities, drive more investment in big ideas and make sure to retain the talent that moves here, which Case described as “core issues.”

“If done right — and I think they can be done right — it really will position D.C. to rise as one of the great entrepreneurial cities in this next wave,” Case said.

– The Truth Initiative has long been a leader in the fight against teen smoking. The Chronicle of Philanthropy shares how they rebranded in order to further connect with youth and continue to crush the rates of teen smoking. (Chronicle, 1/7) – Subscription required

– Foundation Center president Brad Smith introduces a new online data dashboard, funding map, and report from Foundation Center and the Center for Disaster Philanthropy called Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy. The interactive dashboard offers a quick glimpse at disaster-related funding trends for 2015. (Philantopic, 1/12)

EDUCATION | Opinion: Natalie Wexler, education blogger/editor of Greater Greater Education and DC Eduphile, and trustee of the Omega Foundation, explores the rigors of D.C. high school diploma and diploma equivalency programs in her latest blog post. (GGE, 1/12)

RACIAL EQUITY/GENDER EQUITY | There is a racial wealth gap in the U.S. that persists well into retirement for most black and Latino citizens. For black women especially, studies find, the disadvantages that contribute to this wealth gap stretch far beyond that of their peers. (Oregon Live, 1/11)

Just for fun, check out your odds of winning the Powerball jackpot, according to this interactive simulator. Then, if the odds are in your favor, see what you could buy in the Greater Washington region with all that money.

– Ciara


Addressing some of the real issues that plague our region | A third quarter report to the community

by Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

WRAG’s mission statement reads, “The Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers promotes increased, effective and responsible philanthropy to improve the health and vitality of the region and all who live here.” In other words, we utilize the tool of philanthropy to make our region better. There are multiple challenges that plague our region, multiple areas on which we might focus. WRAG has made the decision to focus on housing, education, and employment, and now we are adding the overarching issue of racism and racial equity to this listing.

Affordable housing – In 2011, the WRAG Board of Directors voted unanimously to concentrate a large segment of our work on this issue. Without question, there is a momentum building in our region – as evidenced by the powerful panel of leaders that convened in June to discuss this topic at the annual conference of the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers. This session was coordinated by the Greater Washington Housing Leaders Group, a collective that WRAG was instrumental in establishing. And just last month, Leadership Greater Washington announced that affordable housing will be its priority in 2015-2016. We believe that WRAG’s voice has been important in moving this conversation and soon, we will announce a new initiative that we anticipate will have even greater impact.

Racism/Racial Equity – Since the death of Michael Brown in August 2014, the country has been challenged to look at the issues of racism/racial equity.  Not just in other parts of the country, but also in our region, the impact of racial inequity and racism surround us in ways that are sometimes open and easily seen, and at other times are invisible to many. We believe that philanthropy must elevate a conversation on this topic. A group of WRAG members is currently discussing how to move forward on this important topic. But for now, as part of that elevation, Dr. David Williams will speak on ”The House that Racism Built” on  November 19th at WRAG’s Annual Meeting. More exciting announcements on this work will be forthcoming later this year.

Education – Several years ago, the longstanding WRAG Public Education Working Group ended due to a lack of funding. I am delighted that Natalie Wexler of the Omega Foundation has expressed interest in rekindling this group. This month, a very preliminary meeting was held with a small group of interested WRAG members. Next month, that group will grow and a learning agenda for education funders will be developed to be launched in 2016.

Disadvantaged Youth – In September, Dr. Karl Alexander was WRAG’s Brightest Minds presenter. A Johns Hopkins sociologist, he studied almost 800 disadvantaged youth in Baltimore over 25 years. His research, presented in his book, The Long Shadow, is sobering with its message that, essentially, where we start in life is where we’ll finish.  To change that, he urged the philanthropic community to focus its investments on early education, summer learning programs, and keeping kids in school.

Employment/Economic Empowerment – Finally, WRAG was a part of a group that hosted a briefing on the Community Wealth Building Initiative in the spring. Since that conversation, interest is evolving around ways to grow and invest in the first business, the Clean Water Management Group. Also other ideas are emerging to morph the project in directions that respect both its core of employee ownership and its attachment to an anchor institution, while still looking at the work with new eyes.


P.S. WRAG’s third quarter report would not be complete without acknowledging that the 2015-2016 cohort of Philanthropy Fellows began their fellowships with WRAG members this month!

You can catch up on the first and second quarter reports here.