On March 21, 2019, Laura Overdeck, chair of Overdeck Family Foundation and founder of Bedtime Math testified to the Education Committee of the New Jersey Assembly.
Laura’s testimony focused on the inequity in children’s learning outcomes, specifically in math, as well as potential high-impact and low-cost solutions that she believed could scale to all K-12 grade students in New Jersey. Full remarks follow.
Testimony to the New Jersey Assembly – Education Committee
Chairwoman Lampitt, Chairman Zwicker, and committee members, thank you for inviting me to discuss access to the STEM career pipeline. I’m Laura Overdeck, and seven years ago I founded the nonprofit Bedtime Math. Along the way we’ve had eye-opening learnings about the dire inequity in children’s learning outcomes, as well as some high-impact, low-cost solutions that I believe you could scale to all K-12 students.
As quick background: We all know to read kids a bedtime story, so why not do bedtime math? We serve up a lively nightly math problem for parents and kids to do together for fun, with questions at three levels of challenge, ranging from pre-K to mid-elementary. University of Chicago researchers found that in a sample of 600 kids randomly assigned to use our app vs. a reading-only app, the Bedtime Math users gained an extra three months of math skills in one school year.
Why did this happen? For one, the math problems are engaging, with “forbidden” topics like chocolate, flamingos and pillow fights; kids love mischief. But more importantly, the child does the math one on one with a dedicated grown-up. Kids can tackle a challenging question for fun, use any method they want to solve it, and take as long as they want to see how math explains our everyday lives.
We see that this free app can turn any parent or caregiver into a playful and effective math teacher. In fact, the children of the most math-anxious parents had even higher gains. We believe this connectivity between school and home learning is the key to enabling underrepresented groups to excel at math and science.
Let’s address a critical overlooked truth: Math, the foundation for all STEM subjects, builds on itself. If you haven’t mastered adding, you cannot learn to multiply. Think about that: second graders who cannot add are nevertheless pushed onward, because of the realities of the public school curriculum structure. As a result, the multiplication, division and fractions we try to stuff into them often never stick.
The time outside school is the opportunity to fill these foundational gaps, and it’s a big opportunity. Kids spend about 1,200 hours a year in school, but about 5,000 waking hours outside school – more than four times as much. The differences in how kids experience that contributes significantly to the achievement gap. In general, well-off, well-educated parents feel confident teaching their kids the concepts they missed, or if they feel academically insecure, they hire a tutor. Low-income kids often don’t have these options. Their parents and caregivers are more likely to have academic anxiety, and cannot afford tutors. Once those children fall below proficient, they do not catch up.
It’s an emergency to give kids a strong foundation because the top-paying jobs are all in high-rigor engineering and scientific fields – but you can’t successfully major in a science or engineering at a top college unless you’ve already mastered calculus in high school. Having majored in astrophysics at Princeton, I can tell you that this standard is not arbitrary. Colleges need to teach at a breakneck pace to prepare our future innovators for these highly specialized fields. In turn, we have to prepare kids from underrepresented groups to enter the STEM pipeline on equally firm footing, and to stay on the path.
So how do we do that? Let’s unleash children’s parents and caregivers to carry on the hard work our teachers do, and fill in kids’ learning gaps day by day so they can build true math fluency and thrive in the STEM pipeline. Bedtime Math is one option. For more formal content, free online videos from Khan Academy address any topic a student wants to understand better. At one elementary school, the lowest-performing section of fifth graders started on kindergarten math on Khan, worked their way up, and eventually outstripped the rest of the fifth grade by the end of the school year.
My final recommendation is to bring the Academic Parent-Teacher Team model to New Jersey. In 16 states, teachers run the first parent-teacher conference as a group for the whole class. They give the boilerplate information to all parents at once, which then saves time to hold more personalized one-on-one conferences the rest of the year. The teachers can then show parents and caregivers their own student’s specific gaps and suggest very targeted resources the family can use at home to catch up. And this is budget-neutral: there is no extra cost.
Thank you, and I’d be happy to answer any questions.