Monthly Archives: February 2015
30 Million. It’s a big number. 30 million dollars, 30 million people, 30 million followers on Twitter, 30 million likes on Facebook – regardless of how you look at it – it is formidable. And all the more so when it represents a deficit or a gap, like the 30 million words separating 3 years olds in poor families from those growing up in affluent households.
As a landmark study published in 1995 demonstrated, children of professionals were exposed to roughly 1,500 more words per hour than those raised in poverty. By the time the children reached four years of age, the gap was nearly 30 million words.
The acquisition of language is the cornerstone for education. It is the chief mechanism for naming the world and connecting with others, and it is arguably the most critical tool by which we gain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Vocabulary in 1st graders is a strong predictor of later academic success, and studies show that vocabulary size is the single best predictor of career success. So before their educational journey even begins, low-income children are at a distinct disadvantage.
To make matters worse, this is not simply a matter of a skill deficiency – we’re talking about the brain’s circuitry. Neuroscience is revealing a complex relationship between the brain and poverty. The environmental factors of poverty dramatically impact the developing brain in infants. When language isn’t acquired during the ideal developmental window, the brain’s synapses and neurons are not developing at the same rate and with the same complexities as those of their more resourced peers. It seems the deck is stacked against low-income students. Despair can easily settle in.
But by God’s design and by His grace, our brains are resilient – there is hope. Our brains are not fixed in infancy. Our fate is not sealed by the time we arrive in kindergarten. Skills can be gained, vocabulary can be built, new neural pathways established, and the gap can be closed.
Our founders had a vision for a school of excellence, providing a classical Christ-centered education to one of the most historically underserved neighborhoods in Dallas. They didn’t know about the 30 million word gap, but they did know that the schools in this neighborhood were failing their students. They knew that education was a key factor in breaking the cycle of generational poverty. They felt called by God to represent His heart for justice and human flourishing in a part of the city that had long been forgotten.
Why a classical approach? Time doesn’t permit an answer that such a question deserves, but consider this: Robert Maynard Hutchins, an American educational philosopher who served as dean of Yale Law School and president of the University of Chicago, argued “The best education for the best is the best education for all.” Our founders resolved to provide the sort of education this population deserves – the sort of education too often reserved only for those who can afford elite, independent schooling. It is an educational vision that looks to the enduring tradition of the liberal arts, an education that embraces life’s big questions, an education that seeks to cultivate virtue and wisdom by nurturing the soul with that which is good, true, and beautiful. And on top of all that, it turns out the educational vision of our founders is just what our students need.
In the 20+ years since the study was released, policy leaders and educators have scrambled to respond. And now, in cooperation with neuroscience, best practices are coming into view. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, it looks a lot like a WDCS education. Here are a few of the ways we’re closing the gap:
- Great books read aloud starting in Pre-K
- Explicit instruction in phonetics and phonemic awareness
- A multi-sensory approach to decoding (phonics) and encoding (spelling) words
- An atmosphere thick with rich language & complex ideas:
- Daily singing of monthly hymns (February’s selection comes from the 8th century)
- Engaging conversations in classes and in our dining hall
- Scripture and poetry memorization and recitation (the kindergartners just completed a selection of St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, our 7th graders memorized Longfellow’s “Psalm of Life,” and our 3rd graders are working on Travis’ letter appealing for aid at the Alamo)
- Classic literature read aloud and discussed (the 8th graders recently finished Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)
- Nature Studies classes that provide ample time outdoors naming trees, flowers, and birds (the dessert willow and the killdeer to name a few).
I’ll never forget the first time I stepped on the London Underground at Victoria Station and heard the warning, in the typical manner of the understated British: “Mind the gap!” 30 millions words is significant – and part of what we are doing here at West Dallas Community School is minding that gap.
But ultimately, we’re concerned about more than simply the word gap . The human condition, as the scriptures tell us, involves the sin gap. That too is a significant part of our work. Yes, we want our students to leave here with a strong vocabulary that propels them on to future success. We want them to love words. But we also point them to the original Word, the logos, Jesus Christ.
Head of School