Children’s executive functions and evidence-based activities that improve them: An interview with Adele Diamond, Professor, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

 Executive functions (EFs) are a critical factor in determining people’s success in school and on the job, as well as their mental and physical health. Moreover, the core executive functions (self-control, working memory and cognitive flexibility) form the foundation for higher-order executive functions, such as reasoning, problem solving, and planning. Importantly, research shows that executive functions can be improved, including for young children, which can bring a lifetime of benefits.

To learn more, we’re joined by one of the leading experts, Adele Diamond (@DrAdeleDiamond). She’s a Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, and one of the founders of the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. She earned her B.A. from Swarthmore College and her Ph.D. from Harvard.

Because this interview is longer (30 min) than most, here are links to specific segments if you prefer:

  • Why inhibitory control is important, click here.
  • Why working memory is important, click here.
  • Why cognitive flexibility is important, click here.
  • Strategies to strengthen exec functions in children, click here.
  • Implications of the research for education policy and practice, click here.

Further reading:

  • Dr. Diamond’s survey article on activities and programs that improve children’s executive functions.
  • study (referenced in the interview) by Terrie Moffit et. al that draws on data from over 1,000 children born in one city in a single year and tracked until age 32.
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Avoiding performance perversity: An interview with Donald Moynihan, Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

An increasing number of real-life examples have shown the potential for performance measures to create perverse behavior within public agencies and programs. How can public leaders and managers structure performance measures and incentives, and take action, to try to avoid so-called performance perversity?

To gain insights, we’re joined by Donald Moynihan. He’s a Professor at the La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of the book The Dynamics of Performance Management. He also authored a recent LA Times opinion piece on the problem of performance perversity within public agencies.

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Massachusetts’ juvenile justice Pay for Success initiative: An interview with George Overholser, CEO, Third Sector Capital Partners

In January 2014, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced its juvenile justice Pay for Success (PFS) initiative aimed at reducing recidivism rates among youth. In doing so, it became one of the first jurisdictions in the U.S. to launch a PFS initiative, also called a Social Impact Bond.

To learn more, we’re joined by one of the leading experts on Pay for Success approaches, George Overholser (@goverholser). He’s the CEO and co-founder of Third Sector Capital. He’s a co-author of two recent reports about the Massachusetts project, including a project brief and a summary of lessons learned so far. He’s also the co-author of the lead chapter of the issue of Community Development Investment Review that focuses on PFS financing.

As background, the Massachusetts PFS initiative is a partnership between the Commonwealth, the service provider (Roca, Inc.), the intermediary (Third Sector Capital Partners) and commercial and philanthropic funders. If the initiative proves to be successful based on an independent, rigorous evaluation, success payments will come from the Commonwealth, which has committed up to $27 million for this seven-year project, and from the U.S. Department of Labor, which awarded the Commonwealth a first-of-its-kind PFS grant of $11.7 million in 2013.

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Applying insights from behavioral economics to improve social services: An interview with Emily Schmitt, Research Analyst, Office of Planning, Research & Evaluation at the Administration for Children & Families, HHS

In 2010, the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project. Its purpose is to adapt and apply insights from behavioral economics to the design and implementation of social service programs and policies, with the broader goal of improving the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families. It is the first major opportunity in the U.S. to apply a behavioral research lens to programs that serve poor families. The project is led by the social policy research firm MDRC, in partnership with behavioral science experts across the U.S.

The BIAS project uses a four step approach to address challenges or bottlenecks in social programs — an approach that any state or local social service agency (or any public agency in general) could also use.:

  • Define: identify problems of interest with the program or agency
  • Diagnose: gather data, create a process map & identify drop-off points, and hypothesize bottlenecks
  • Design: brainstorm behaviorally informed interventions that have the potential to address bottlenecks
  • Test: pilot the behavioral interventions using random assignment or other experimental framework

To learn more, we are joined by Emily Schmitt (@epschmitt) who is the point person for the project. She is a Research Analyst at the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation within ACF, which is the office that is funding the project.

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Apprenticeship as an economic & workforce development tool in South Carolina: An interview with Brad Neese, Director, Apprenticeship Carolina

South Carolina has the fastest growing registered apprenticeship programs in the nation, with over 665 employers involved and over 10,000 apprentices as of June 2014. To discuss apprenticeship in South Carolina and the lessons it provides for other states, we’re joined by Brad Neese. He’s the director of Apprenticeship Carolina (@ApprenticeshpSC) a division of the South Carolina Technical College System. The mission of Apprenticeship Carolina is to ensure that all employers in the state have access to the information and technical assistance they need to create demand-driven registered apprenticeship programs.

The interview includes a discussion of how apprenticeship in South Carolina (“apprenticeship evolved,” as Neese calls it) has expanded beyond the skilled trades; how apprenticeship is used as an economic and workforce development tool; the role of Apprenticeship Carolina in promoting promoting registered apprenticeship in the state; and more.

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How successful school systems are closing achievement gaps: An interview with Greg Duncan, Professor, University of California, Irvine

At a time of growing income inequality, how can our schools significantly improve the life chances of low-income children? To explore that question, we’re joined by Greg Duncan. He’s a Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Irvine, and one the nation’s leading experts on issues of child and youth development. He is the author, with Richard Murnane of Harvard, of the new book Restoring Opportunity: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education. The book highlights the growing inequality in America between the educational haves and have-nots and also argues that evidence-based, targeted interventions in education can significantly level the playing field between low-income children and their more financially well-off peers.

Our interview begins by examining some of the key trends in educational achievement since the 1970s. We then discuss commonalities among the book’s three case studies of successful educational initiatives that are raising the achievement levels of students from disadvantage backgrounds. And finally, we look more closely at one case study: The University of Chicago Charter School Network.

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The Building Strong Families program: An interview with Robert Wood, Senior Fellow, Mathematica Policy Research

Building Strong Families (BSF) was the first large-scale evaluation of a relationship skills education program for unmarried low-income parents. Sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it ran from 2002 to 2013. It tested a voluntary program that served unmarried, romantically involved couples who were expecting or had recently had a baby. Its goal was to help unmarried new parents strengthen their relationships (and fulfill their aspirations for a healthy marriage, if they wished to marry) with the ultimate objective of creating a stable and healthy home environment for their children.

The evaluation of BSF used a rigorous, random assignment research design to test not only whether the overall program worked (averaging across its eight sites), but also to investigate which sites were more effective than others — results that provide clues about which approaches to BSF were most effective.

To learn more about BSF and discuss the findings, we’re joined by Robert G. Wood, a Senior Fellow at Mathematica Policy Research and the lead author of the final, 36-month BSF evaluation report. He was also the lead author of the 15-month report, results that were later published in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

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The New Hope anti-poverty initiative in Milwaukee: An interview with Aletha Huston, Professor, University of Texas at Austin

 This year marks 20 year since the launch of the New Hope Project, an anti-poverty initiative that was implemented in two inner-city areas in Milwaukee from 1994 to 1998. The guiding principle of this time-limited demonstration project was that anyone who works full time should not be poor. It offered low-income people who were willing to work full time several benefits, including:

  • an earnings supplement to raise their incomes above the poverty level;
  • subsidized health insurance;
  • subsidized child care;
  • and, for people who had difficulty finding full-time work, a referral to a wage-paying community service job.

The program had an independent, rigorous evaluation by MDRC using a large-scale random assignment study, including five-year and eight-year follow-ups.

To tell us about the key findings from New Hope for adults and children — as well as its significance for policymakers and other social service leaders today — we’re joined by Aletha Huston. She’s a Professor of Child Development at the University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert in understanding the effects of poverty and social policies on children. She was the lead author of the five year impact study of New Hope and, with Greg Duncan and Thomas Weisner, is the co-author of the book Higher Ground: New Hope for the Working Poor and Their Children.

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Creating outcome-focused grant programs known as tiered-evidence grant programs or innovation funds: A video overview

A growing trend government at the Federal level is the use of an outcome-focused and evidence-based grant design called tiered-evidence grants — also known as innovation funds. This type of grant program considers the evidence supporting a practice’s efficacy when determining which practices to fund. It also use staged funding, with more money awarded to practices with better evidence. Examples include:

  • Development Innovation Ventures (DIV) at USAID, which is designed to find, test and scale ideas that could radically improve global prosperity.
  • The Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) at the Department of Education, which invests in high-impact, potentially transformative education interventions, ranging from new ideas with significant potential to those with strong evidence of effectiveness that are ready to be scaled.
  • The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (Home Visiting) at HHS, which uses trained professionals to provide support to vulnerable parents in order to improve health and development outcomes for at-risk children. HHS also has the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program that provides funds to test innovative approaches and strategies to teen pregnancy prevention.
  • The Social Innovation Fund at the Corporation for National and Community Service, which fosters private and public collaborations that identify, evaluate, and expand promising nonprofits to address economic opportunity, youth development, and health.
  • The Workforce Innovation Fund at the Department of Labor, which cultivates and tests innovative approaches to workforce training and encourages the replication of evidence-based practices in workforce development.

This 7-minute video webinar provides an overview of tiered-evidence grant programs.

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Performance management & program evaluation: A video overview

Performance management and program evaluation are two fundamental analytical tools for agency leaders and program managers at the federal, state and local levels. They are different tools with different strengths and weaknesses, but they are complementary approaches. Too often within public agencies, though, performance and evaluation staffs are siloed and not working closely together to create synergies between these tools.

This video overview is designed to help public leaders and program managers to better understand performance management and program evaluation — their differences and their synergies — so they can more closely integrate these efforts.

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