Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., and a former American Prospect writing fellow.

Recent Articles

Illinois Poised To Strip Rahm Emanuel’s Control over Chicago Schools

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman) Protestors of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to close dozens of Chicago public schools rally at the Illinois State Capitol in 2013. F or more than 20 years, the mayor of Chicago has had the power to appoint not only the CEO of the nation’s third-largest school system, but also the entire school board that governs it. But after years of protests from Chicago residents, the Illinois state legislature may finally end this controversial governance structure, potentially setting the stage for much larger public school shifts in the Windy City. Other than Chicago, every school district in Illinois has an elected school board, as do more than 95 percent of school districts nationwide. But in 1995, as a reform strategy for the state’s largest and poorest district, state lawmakers passed legislation granting Chicago’s then-Mayor Richard M. Daley greater authority to appoint his city’s school leadership. Rahm Emanuel succeeded Daley as mayor in 2011, and took control over...

Why Did Brookings Ignore Federal Pre-K's Positive Results?

In the five decades since its launch, more than 33 million low-income children have participated in Head Start, the federal government’s early-childhood education program designed to narrow the gaps between rich and poor students by providing disadvantaged children with comprehensive preschool. Nearly one million children were enrolled in 2015 alone, and research has shown that the program has had positive effects on children later in life and in their education.

But last month, the Brookings Institution, an influential, centrist think tank based in Washington, D.C., published a “consensus statement” on the “current state of scientific knowledge” as it pertains to pre-K research, and failed to include some of the most important research available on Head Start’s impact.

There’s been growing bipartisan interest in expanding pre-kindergarten systems, as legislators and policy experts increasingly view early-childhood learning as a smart investment for youth development and success later in life. The Brookings report, a collaboration among ten social scientists over the past year, was created to help inform policymakers and practitioners on how best to expand and improve pre-K systems based on the existing research evidence.

Yet the Brookings consensus statement, entitled “Puzzling It Out,” is puzzling. The authors write:

“Convincing evidence on the longer-term impacts of scaled pre-K programs on academic outcomes and school progress is sparse, precluding broad conclusions. The evidence that does exist often shows that pre-K induced improvements in learning are detectable during elementary school, but studies also reveal null or negative longer-term impacts for some programs.”

In fact, the most prominent “scaled pre-K program” is Head Start, but here’s what the Brookings consensus statement has to say about the program:

The challenges of scale-up are illustrated by the national Head Start program, for which consistently strong and enduring impacts have been elusive. … Studies examining adolescent and adult outcomes for graduates of Head Start programs during the 1970s and 1980s found positive impacts into early adulthood … but the results of a large-scale, randomized trial of Head Start launched in 2002 were much less encouraging. Despite a boost for children’s academic skills at the end of their Head Start year, the Head Start Impact Study (HSIS) found that these initial gains rapidly dissipated once children began formal schooling.

Curiously, “Puzzling It Out” fails to mention the recent work out of University of California, Berkeley, where social scientists have reanalyzed data used in the 2002 HSIS study, finding much more positive results than previously understood. In a policy brief synthesizing these newer studies, Claire Montialoux of Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, writes that the original HSIS conclusions “are too pessimistic and substantially underestimate the benefits of Head Start.”

Brookings’s consensus report also ignores the work of two of its own research fellows, Lauren Bauer and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, who published a study last summer finding that Head Start participation increased the probability that students would graduate from high school, attend college, and obtain a post-secondary degree. The researchers also found that overall, and particularly among African Americans, Head Start led to social, emotional, and behavioral gains that were evident in adulthood.

 

Bauer told the Prospect that she disagrees with the new report’s conclusion that Head Start has largely failed to produce long-term gains. “I think we have fairly convincing evidence from the Perry preschool program, from the Abecedarian program, from the quasi-experimental long-term studies of Head Start, that all suggest that decades after the opportunity to get a high-quality preschool education, children’s’ lives become meaningfully better,” Bauer says. She was not involved in drafting the “Puzzling It Out” report, and says she could not speak to how the authors chose what to include or exclude.

When asked about the report’s omission of positive Head Start studies, Deborah Phillips, a psychology professor at Georgetown and the report’s lead author, first responded by saying that the report simply wasn’t focused on Head Start, and that her team of collaborators “did not delve into that evidence base [when] coming up with their consensus statement.”

Yet their report specifically discusses Head Start, and presents conclusions strongly suggesting that the research to date on the program is not notable. When pressed on this, Phillips said: “Again, we just did not look at that secondary data [from Berkeley]. I think in another year it will be a perfect time to draw conclusions, but for this effort—we were doing much of our work in the fall and early winter and we knew more work would be coming out—we just didn’t feel we could reframe it and include it. But all of us feel it is very important work.”

Important as the work may be, the coalition of scholars working on the new Brookings report apparently saw no reason to let it influence their “consensus” statement. Which, in turn, raises some questions about what, exactly, drives consensus in the first place. 

 

Massachusetts Charter School Backs Off Exclusionary Hair Policies -- For Now

Public outrage plus scrutiny from civil rights groups and the state attorney general draws attention to penalties imposed on black students.

(Photo: Shutterstock)
(Photo: Shutterstock) T he Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, a suburban Boston charter in Malden, Massachusetts, is under fire for its dress-code policy prohibiting hair extensions and afros, rules that critics say are racially discriminatory. Despite protests from civil rights groups, the state’s charter school association, and even the Bay State’s Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, Mystic Valley—which voted Sunday to suspend its policies for the remainder of the academic year—defends its dress code as critical for promoting equity and student academic success. The school's dress code sparked national attention earlier this month when parents of two African-American students at the school (15-year-old twins Deanna and Mya Cook) said their daughters received multiple detentions for wearing their hair in braids. They were also both barred from after-school sports, and Mya was banned from the junior prom. Though black students have worn hair extensions before, parents say...

Bernie, the Billionaires, and the School Board

The pro-charter candidates in Tuesday’s Los Angeles election are backed by the Walton family, Michael Bloomberg, and Eli Broad. Their opponents are backed by Bernie Sanders, in the priciest school board race in U.S. history.

AP Photo/Nick Ut
AP Photo/Nick Ut Senator Bernie Sanders at a rally in downtown Los Angeles. J ust 20 percent of eligible Los Angeles voters turned out to the polls on March 7 to vote for their city’s next mayor and school board officials, and turnout is likely to be even lower for Tuesday’s school board runoffs. And yet, this race that barely anyone will vote in has turned into a high-stakes battleground, complete with record-setting amounts of political spending and bitter negative campaigning. It has pitted some of the richest men in America against none other than Bernie Sanders, in a brawl over the future of public education in the nation’s largest state. Incumbent board president Steve Zimmer, backed by labor, is running against the education reformer Nicholas Melvoin; in another district, labor-backed Imelda Padilla is facing off against the charter-backed Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez in an open race. Los Angeles is last of the big-city school districts to hold elections for local school board...

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