Hey teacher, don’t keep those kids at home

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If Ontario’s government hopes to maintain public support for its new full-day kindergarten (FDK) program, it had better abandon its inexplicably dismissive attitude about the regime’s evident growing pains.

News reports this week suggest that the province’s ministry of education has been flooded, in recent months, with complaints by both parents and educators about bloated class sizes and the noise, disruption and confusion this caused in several schools last academic year.

In at least once instance, as many as 40 tykes were crowded into a room. Documents obtained by the Globe and Mail through a freedom-of-information request indicate that “about 640 kindergarten classrooms, or eight per cent of those that introduced the (full-day) program had more than 30 children. . .according to a confidential briefing note to the minister in January.”

Moreover, the Globe reported, “Martha Hradowy, who represents early childhood education workers at Windsor’s Greater Essex County District School Board, said the situation has become so dire that some schools have created learning areas for full-day kindergarten students, which hold about 100 children. Classrooms are divided into four separate corners.”

This is exactly the kind of bad press no government should want as it implements the final phase of an FDK soft launch to all schools in the province. And yet, so far, the ministry’s response has been decidedly tepid.

Noting that daycares in the province are required, by law, to maintain a one-to-eight caregiver-child ratio and that pre-school primary programs must limit class sizes to no more than 23 kids, government officials blithely allowed that, at present, there is no comparable cap for FDK, only a requirement that school boards preserve an average class size of 26 throughout the system. 

Certain Ontarian editorialists of my acquaintance are, no doubt, itching to get busy scribbling their provocative nonsense in response to this new, so-called crisis in public education. “Ontario’s kids crammed into classrooms like sardines in a can”, “Ontario’s schools turning into factory farms”, “Ontario’s kindergartners pay the price for nanny-state meddling,” the headlines will scream.

The overcrowding, these pundits will write, proves that Ontario is nowhere near ready to assume the responsibilities of providing efficient full-day kindergarten; indeed, that such a monumental task is probably beyond the administrative and fiscal capabilities of any province in this country.

They will then use the point to segue into an entirely separate, if equally specious, argument: that there is no credible proof that FDK or, indeed, any form of early childhood education provides lasting social, psychological or educational benefits to kids; and that those youngsters who do evince advanced interpersonal and academic skills as a result of their exposure to such programs lose these advantages over their more classically schooled peers by the end of Grade One.

The arguments that it can’t be done and that it’s not necessary, anyway, have dogged the discussion about publicly sponsored and subsidized child care and early education for decades.

But it’s only been within the last 50 years when rigorous research and empirical evidence have shown that state investments in these programs have generated multipliers (in the reduction of public costs related to poverty, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, crime, illiteracy, innumeracy, and mental illness) worth billions of dollars a year in countries that have had the perspicacity to spend the money accordingly.

And the suggestion that all kids eventually even each other out, regardless of their early childhood education backgrounds (or lack, thereof), is hardly a resonant reason for abandoning such programs.

Who would want his enriched, curious, empathetic kid suddenly leavened in grade school by the lower common denominators in his midst?

Isn’t the better idea to raise everyone’s standards by providing a commonly accessible, superior system of play-based, pre-school education that’s integrated seamlessly into the higher grades where meritorious principles (team-playing, integrity, love of learning) may continue to flourish?

The growing pains the Ontario government’s FDK program now suffer are serious, but they are perhaps predictable and, more importantly, eminently fixable.

Now is no time for officialdom to take them lightly.

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