MACK: It’s never too early to start closing the achievement gap

Special to The TelegraphJune 8, 2014 

On May 23 the school year ended for Bibb County public schools, and for a lot of the seniors and their families it was a day of great pride and accomplishment for the completion of the requirements for graduation.

Regrettably, however, for too many seniors and their families, it was a painful reminder of the failure of our public education system to prepare our children for the future. As a substitute teacher in Bibb County -- predominantly for secondary and middle schools for the past three years -- I have watched with great interest children who have excelled while others have failed to reach their potential and graduate. All too frequently, high school dropouts are much more likely to become gang members and wind up behind bars.

These high school dropouts are therefore caught up in a cycle of recidivism that could be avoided if they graduated from high school. According to The Alliance for Excellent Education, “people who have a high school diploma or a higher degree/certificate earn higher wages through legitimate work, thereby reducing the individual’s perceived need to commit a crime and/or raising the potential cost of crime to that person (i.e., getting caught and being incarcerated) to unacceptable levels.” Therefore, this gap in achievement between those students who graduate and those who do not warrants closer scrutiny if we are to survive as a community and attract the vital industries that are so desperately needed for a community to thrive.

Reading gap

During my tenure as a substitute teacher I have devoted considerable time attempting to understand what circumstances, environmental influences and socioeconomic factors impact the graduation rates. The most consistent factor I have observed is that the reading level of a student is directly correlated to the probability of high school graduation. That is to say, if a student is reading significantly below his/her grade level, the likelihood of graduation from high school is remote at best.

Additionally, the socioeconomic status of a child is a further mitigating factor as it relates to the likelihood of high school graduation. For instance, research by Stanford psychologists reveals that 2-year-old children of lower-income families may already be six months behind in language development. Given the fact that language development is a critical component in reading comprehension, this deficit in language development for 2-year-old children of lower-income families is problematic.

Furthermore, years of research suggest that children of lower-income and less educated parents often enter school with significantly less developed language skills than children of upper-economic status with better educated parents. This point is further illustrated in The New York Times article entitled, “The Power of Talking to Your Baby,” which stated, “By the time a poor child is 1 year old, she has most likely already fallen behind middle-class children in her ability to talk, understand and learn.”

Language chasm

“The gap between poor children and wealthier ones widen each year, and by high school it has become a chasm, the article said.

Therefore, I believe we must start long before school, preschool and perhaps even birth attempting to close this achievement gap before it becomes a chasm. Since there is no consensus as to the form the attempt to close the achievement gap should take, let us examine some possible solutions.

However, before postulating about possible ways to close the achievement gap between children of lower-income, less educated parents and children of upper-economic status with better educated parents, an important assumption must be made. More precisely, we must assume there is something about poverty that limits the ability of a child to learn. The New York Times article stated that “the key to early learning is talking -- specifically, a child’s exposure to language spoken by parents and caretakers from birth to age 3, the more the better.”

This article suggested that the stream of parent-to-child baby talk is very important in bridging the achievement gap between the children of poor/uneducated parents and children of economically advantaged/educated parents.

Born Learning Campaign

“Pants, pants, pants -- I am folding the pants. Pants are lo-o-o-ng! Do the pants go on my head? Do they? No-o-o, the pants don’t go on my head -- no-o-o.” This popular television commercial, along with several other commercials, is part of an initiative by the United Way, Civitas and the Ad Council that launched the “Born Learning Campaign” to facilitate early childhood development.

The Born Learning laundry commercial previously referenced ends with “Everyday moments can become teaching moments because learning starts long before school does.” The “Born Learning Campaign” was designed to help parents combat early learning deficits in children. The campaign is for parents/caregivers and is supported by a website (www.bornlearning.org) that offers educational materials, action tips, information, resources and support for community activities.

Since many experts agree that the first and most influential teacher a child has is a parent, I believe that the Born Learning Campaign is a vital tool in closing the achievement gap before it can become a chasm. Furthermore, researchers agree the most explosive, expansive and critical years for human brain development are from the womb to the kindergarten classroom. Therefore, the tools and resources necessary to maximize the success of those years can be found on the previously referenced website.

Thirty Million Words Initiative

Another vital tool that can be useful in closing the achievement gap between lower-income children with less educated parents and children of upper-income better educated parents is called the Thirty Million Words Initiative. The Thirty Million Words Initiative is defined as “an innovative parent directed program designed to harness the power of parent language to build a child’s brain and impact his or her future.”

The TMW curriculum combines education that “transforms hard science into accessible and easy-to-understand concepts” and technology that illustrates these concepts in an animated multimedia platform that utilizes “video of parent-child interaction that brings the concepts full-circle by showing parents how to apply them in real life.” Researchers have found that children of lower-income, less educated parents hear 30 million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than children of upper-economic and better educated parents.

More important, researchers determined that children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. Also, when these same children were followed into third grade they had larger vocabularies, were better readers and achieved higher test scores than children who heard fewer words.

Significantly, the children who started out ahead stayed ahead. Conversely, the children who started out behind stayed behind. Moreover, researchers found that the number of words a child is exposed to between ages 0 and 3 is significantly correlated to the ultimate IQ and academic success of the child. These findings suggest that neither genetics nor a lack of potential is the cause of the achievement gap, but rather that the 30 million word gap is a consequence of parental knowledge or the lack thereof.

For more information on the Thirty Million Words Initiative contact The Hemera Foundation, The University of Chicago Medicine 773-834-8629, tmwproject@gmail.com, 5841 S. Maryland Ave., MC 1035, Chicago, IL 60637.

Center-based approach

In conclusion, I believe that the parents of this community must focus in on the Born Learning and the Thirty Million Words Initiative and that all community leaders and stakeholders must be part of the implementation and expansion of these initiatives to include a center-based approach.

The center-based implementation must begin with all day care centers, Head Start programs and more importantly, the Macon Promise Neighborhood Center that provides wrap-around services including family counseling and adult education programs in the Tindall Heights and Unionville neighborhoods. The area’s Southwest High School has a graduation rate of just 38 percent, and the crime rate in these neighborhoods is a product of this graduation rate.

Parental and community involvement is essential if we are going to shift the paradigm to a more vibrant community. The Born Learning and Thirty Million Words Initiative are not the solutions to all of the problems that we face in this community. However,

I believe they are a starting point for which to begin the discussion. If not this, then what? And if not now, then when?

Leroy Mack lives in Macon.

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