Focus on educating the very young

He's better off wondering how balloons rise than how fortunes fall

As New Brunswick’s chief, honourary pedagogue, Jody Carr, shops around his draft blueprint to improve the educational denouement of this province, he must realize that his best weapon against creeping academic morbidity rests not with trundling grade-schoolers, but with toddling infants.

Mr. Carr’s title gives him away. He is not only the Minister of Education; he is also the minister responsible for Early Childhood Development. As such, he clearly appreciates what every field researcher has been telling public officials with near nauseating regularity over the past several years: The best, and most cost-effective, way to ensure a child does well in later grades is to invest in his or her education as early and as often as possible.

Indeed, as Mr. Carr acknowledges in his own government’s plan on the subject, titled “Putting Children First: Positioning Early Childhood for the Future,” the experts are definitive: “Their research clearly shows the correlation between the quality of a child’s experience in the early years and his or her success in school – even throughout life. “Eventually, the broader impact of healthy development for our children is stronger families and communities and a stronger, more vibrant province.The foundation of (our) plan is the integration of early childhood development services and

education for children from birth to eight years of age.

“The quality, affordability and accessibility of childcare and other services are built into the plan. We will also focus on ensuring services and education are inclusive – that all children have the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential.”

In fact, he’s so convinced of the efficacy of this approach that he has authorized $38 million of the government’s vanishing resources to “create new early learning and childcare spaces, bringing the total increase to 10,000,” subsidize the salaries of childcare workers, increase the number of support staff, and broaden the system’s accessibility, among other measures.

Still, politics insist that elected representatives must know both how to walk and chew gum. And so, Mr. Carr now spends a good deal of his time putting the finishing touches on a new educational plan for elementary and secondary school systems that, according to news reports, sets specific performance standards for pupils.

According to a recent Telegraph-Journal story, “The department wants 90 per cent of elementary students achieving the expected level of language arts, math and science proficiency on provincial assessments, and 85 per cent of middle school and and high school students attaining the expected levels for their grades.”

This well-intentioned effort is laudable. It may even be necessary. But I can’t help feeling that the emphasis on “outcomes” pegged to rigid performance standards in public schools merely transforms teachers and administrators into mechanics who spend their days fixing broken cars. Ideally, their professional exertions should flow, and receive succour, from a structured, integrated, evidence-based system of pre-school – one that nurtures abilities and identifies problems among kids at the earliest possible stages of their development.

The implications for society extend far beyond the education system.

In a recent syllabus on the broad effects of early years instruction, TD Bank Group’s senior vice president and chief economist Craig Alexander had this to say: “There is a great deal of evidence showing overwhelming benefits of high-quality, early childhood education. For parents, access to quality and affordable programming can help to foster greater labour force participation. But more importantly, for children, greater essential skills development makes it more likely that children will complete high school, go on to post‐secondary education and succeed at that education. This raises employment prospects and reduces duration of unemployment if it occurs.”

In fact, according to his research, for every public dollar invested in early childhood development, the return ranges from roughly $1.5 to almost $3, with the benefit ratio for disadvantaged children being in the double digits.”

When it comes to caring for the youngest in our midst – who will secure the most durable achievements for the province in the future – Mr. Carr’s government is already on the right track. Let it stay there.

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