Tag Archives: Early Childhood Education

Building a skilled workforce begins with early education

 

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When an organization dedicated to fluffing the pillows of the country’s most pampered calls for a trans-Canada strategy for improving public education and skills training for the comparably disadvantaged, then, gentle reader, you know the worm has turned.

The barbarian one-percenters have crashed the gates that keep the remaining 99 per cent effectively penned and let slipped the dogs of democracy.     

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives is not normally prone to outbreaks of egalitarianism, but it is doing a fair job of public scolding on behalf of the working stiff these days, as its president and CEO John Manley (he of former federal, Liberal government fame) ably demonstrated in a statement earlier this week.

“As Canada’s economy evolves and grows, employers face an increasing need for highly skilled and qualified workers,” he wrote. “What is required is a broad national effort to strengthen our country’s education and training systems. Canada’s business leaders encourage the federal, provincial and territorial governments to find creative solutions to the labour market challenges that confront employers, employees, students and future generations.”

Indeed, in places, Mr. Manley sounded almost quaintly optimistic: “We urge all levels of government to work together to expand and align our country’s labour-market information systems in ways that will help more people find rewarding and fulfilling careers. Equally important is the need to harmonize apprenticeship programs, a key step in building a more balanced, highly qualified Canadian workforce.

“To ensure a high quality of life for all citizens, it’s time for a new approach and an honest conversation about what’s working and what isn’t working in Canadian education and skills training.”

He’s not wrong, of course. But neither is he original. For such a putatively great country, Canada’s various education systems and skills development programs (which are, incidentally, almost accidentally coincidental) are a national disgrace. Everybody knows it; nobody does anything about it.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development has even made a institutional project of clucking its tongue over this country’s incomprehensible approach to education. “In 2010, only one per cent of three year-olds and 48 per cent of four year-olds were enrolled in early childhood education programmes (OECD average in 2011: 67 per cent and 82 per cent, respectively),” it recently reported.

That’s only one finding of many that leads to the inescapable conclusion that almost everybody else in the developed world does a better job educating its young people. Certainly, Sweden does.

“The system of pre-school education is outstanding: (a) in its fidelity to societal values and in its attendant commitment to and respect for children; (b) in its systemic approach while respecting programmatic integrity and diversity; and (c) in its respect for teachers, parents, and the public,” the OECD declares in one of its frequent country reports.  

Then, there’s Finland, about which the OECD observes: “The early childhood education workforce has several strengths, such as a high qualification level of staff with teaching responsibilities, advanced professional development opportunities and favourable working environments. 

“Staff with teaching responsibilities are well educated and trained with high initial qualification requirements. There is broad provision of initial education, with full-time and parttime programmes provided publicly and privately. Professional development is mandatory for all staff; and training costs are shared between individual staff members, the government and employers. Working conditions in terms of staff-child ratio are among the best of OECD countries.”

Note the emphasis on “early childhood education” as opposed to primary, secondary or post-secondary schooling. That’s because almost everywhere in the OECD, except Canada, a national strategy exists to inform public policy on pre-school. Take care of that, in a structured and play-based fashion, and all the research says the rest takes care of itself. 

Some programs are are better than others, of course, but few countries limp along utterly devoid of a plan, let alone a system, for their children.

Mr. Manley and his privileged ilk are right to sound the alarm. 

But if they want real results, they ought to marshall whatever influence they possess and entreat this country’s political class to establish a trans-Canada network of early childhood education centers that integrate seamlessly into existing public school systems.  

That’s how you begin to build a truly skilled, job-ready workforce.

 

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It’s time to walk the talk on education

 

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Fisheries and Oceans minister Gail Shea’s heart is in the right place when she says that education is the key to Canada’s long-term prosperity.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heart (such as it is) is likewise in the right place when he urges the international community to emulate this country’s commitment to improving maternal and child welfare around the world. 

Still, actions always speak louder than words, and when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are here at home – where functional illiteracy rates are among the highest in the industrialized world and the federal government’s conception of early childhood education is nothing more than a grab bag of measly tax giveaways to individuals and families – national leaders are mute to the point of perpetual silence.

“A skilled workforce leads to a stronger economy with more and better jobs,” Minister Shea told a graduating class of Holland College in Prince Edward Island last week. “For governments, more people working means more people paying taxes. Taxes are necessary for providing things like health care and education. So, it is an investment in the future, it is an investment in you, and it is an investment in the province and the country, as well.”

She added: “Everybody graduating here tonight has recognized that having a better education and greater skills will help you achieve success.”

Elsewhere, Prime Minister Harper told participants in a three-day summit of maternal and child health, “It’s a philosophy of our government, and I think of Canadians more broadly, that we do not measure things in terms of the amount of money we spend but in terms of the results we achieve.”

Later, in an interview with the Globe and Mail, he elaborated: “We’re in a truly global world. So I do think it is in our broader, enlightened self-interest to make the world a better place. But I also do think some of these things are just worth doing in their own right. We are a very wealthy and lucky people. . .Most of us were fortunate to be born at this point in history and in this particular country.”

But how will history and this country’s future generations judge this particular point in time? 

Mr. Harper is absolutely correct. On a per capital basis, Canada is, compared with its trading partners, awash with cash. The country is set to return to surplus within the next few months and, barring unforeseen events (such as those that afflicted world financial markets in 2008), natural resources development will buoy the economy, injecting sustainable volumes of black ink into federal government coffers for years to come. 

What should we do with that boon? Should we instruct our elected leaders to return it to our individual bank accounts? Or should we take a longer, more considered view of our nation’s true source of wealth and economic durability? 

Universities and vocational colleges consistently complain that our children (when these institutions get their hands on them) are woefully ill-equipped to compete in the labour markets of the world. The kids are, in fact, not alright. Higher education scrambles to undo what lower education has done to little Johnny and Jane. 

Meanwhile, the pressure to train young people to fit existing job roles mounts, even as advanced disciplines in critical thinking, communications and cultural awareness fade to the vanishing point along the horizon most other – and less economically promising – economies as ours, dutifully chart. 

A half-century of hard-won experience in places like Norway, Sweden and Finland convincingly argues that state investments in national early childhood education programs are the best hedges against illiteracy, lassitude, crime, and social dissolution among young people.  

And yet, with few exceptions, Canada – with all its money and resources, with all its hearts in the right places – chooses to spend the money it hasn’t promised to return to taxpayers on prisons, military aircraft that don’t fly and staged commemorations of wars it may or may not have won two centuries ago. 

It’s long past time to put our money where Gail Shea’s mouth is.

 

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To reduce poverty, improve education

 

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Any political regime, regardless of ideological bent, that claims the high ground in the perennial war on poverty rallies the faithful with empty rhetoric and promises it knows it can’t possibly keep.

So it was last week when New Brunswick’s Conservative government laid out a plan to reduce penury in the province – one that looked very much like a version its predecessors in Shawn Graham’s Liberal administration introduced five years ago. 

How did that one work out for us?

“New Brunswickers want to know the results of the last plan,” Grit MLA Don Arsenault observed earlier this week. “Where do we stand now in making sure that we are heading in the right direction? The government is hiding those numbers, hiding those results, because we are just a couple of months away from the election.”

As for the new plan, Mr. Arsenault said, “There are 28 actions with no deadlines. How can the government measure whether the plan meets its objectives?”

To which Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais sneered, “It (criticism of the plan) is for political gain. That is what the members opposite want to do. That is what they like to do. There are measurables, and the measurables are being attained right now. . .We are doing all of that, and we will continue to do that.”

In fact, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have the foggiest notions for reducing poverty in New Brunswick. They trot out the few remaining numbers the gutted  Statistics Canada can provide and arbitrarily decide to chop income disparity by between 20 and 50 per cent over, say, five years. All of which are nice, round numbers that signify precisely nothing.  

Politicians play the poverty card because they think it makes them appear virtuous. But as they stop chasing their opponents’ tails, they merely set their sites on their own.

Poverty is one of those social bedevilments, like illiteracy, that’s impregnable to partisan maledictions or entreaties. It does not recognize doctrinal superiority. In fact, you best attack it by throwing politics out the window, joining hands across party lines and drinking deeply from the wishing well of good public intentions. 

Once that’s done, you spend a whole bunch of money literally reinventing pre-school and primary education systems in this province.

Progressive think tanks, university educators, child advocates – even the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – have all come to the same conclusion: Early Childhood Education, or ECE, plays a vital role in ameliorating the effects of poverty on families and provides disadvantaged kids with a leg up and out of their impoverished circumstances.

The Carolina Abecedarian Project conceived 30 years ago at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina ay Chapel Hill remains one of the best-known and persuasive longitudinal studies in the field of early development. The initiative, a controlled experiment, was designed to ferret out the  benefits for poor children, if any, of early childhood education. 

According to its findings, “Children who participated in the early intervention program had higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years to age 21. Academic achievement in both reading and math was higher from the primary grades through young adulthood. Intervention children completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. Mothers whose children participated in the program achieved higher educational and employment status than mothers whose children were not in the program.”

Even some economists now believe that ECE is a formidable weapon in the public-policy arsenal for combatting poverty. 

In a paper he published last October, Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group, wrote that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run. . .Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

ECE will not eliminate poverty right away; it efficacious effects are generational. And it does cost money – a commodity that’s in short supply in these parts these days.

But collaborating to find a funding solution is a far nobler way for our elected Grits and Tories to pass the time than is sniping at each other over poverty reduction policies and programs that won’t work anyway.

 

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Early learning programs play critical role

 

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A debate now rages over what constitutes a proper grade-school education in Canada. Should it be, for example, a straight, by-the-numbers approach (literally) to teaching math? Or should it be a more flexible, creative, play-based model of problem solving?

It matters, because, until just recently, Canadian children have lagged their counterparts in other developed countries on international tests of basic numeracy and literacy skills. Increasingly, the best jobs in the world are going to European kids, whose educational systems have given them a leg up in the competitive, knowledge-reliant global economy.

So, it should come as no surprise that a recent study on the efficacy of full-day kindergarten in Ontario – introduced four gears ago – is generating ample heat in the pages of the nation’s self-appointed arbiter of social values.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s education reporter, Caroline Alphonso, bylined a story claiming that a new analysis from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto “is raising questions about the value of full-day kindergarten, showing children attending the program in Ontario are no better in reading, writing and number knowledge at the end if Grade 1 than their half-day peers.”

The piece quoted study leader Janette Pelletier, a professor at OISE, thusly: “I would say the challenge is to improve play-based programs that contribute to lasting change in things like writing and number knowledge. And we want to make sure that learning in Grades 1 and 2 builds on engaging learning in full-day kindergarten.” 

Within a day of the article’s publication, the Globe’s letters page bristled with commentary, both for and against FDK, starting with Professor Pelletier, herself. “Your report on my preliminary research,” she wrote, “did not put enough emphasis on the significant benefits of full-day kindergarten. I stressed that the findings of the study show the strong vocabulary and self-regulation benefits of full-day kindergarten. These are the cornerstones for life-long benefits of early childhood programs, including better education and mental health.”

Moreover, she scolded, “cherry-picking to create a negative impression regarding positive research results is not helpful to the public discourse about something as important as early childhood education.”  

Such are the perils, perhaps, of reporting from the front lines of the great and eternal conflict over human perfectibility. How do we measure achievement, and which achievements are more relevant than others at various stages in a kid’s academic career? What’s more, whose opinions should we heed? 

Doretta Wilson of the Society for Quality Education in Toronto thinks that would be her. In a letter she wrote wrote to the Globe, she insisted that “the best way to ensure that children are prepared to learn is to implement explicit, direct instruction of primary reading and mathematics in Grades 1 to 3.”

But is this actually verifiable? Is the best way to make kids active learners to keep them out of early childhood education programs and away from school until the last, possible minute and only then commence drilling math and language concepts into their supple minds. 

All of which, of course, misses the larger point about play-oriented (yet, also structured) early childhood education: Its true value, as Professor Pelletier and other experts in the field attest, is in its capacity to nurture and encourage certain qualities of character and habits of mind and expression that are foundation stones to later learning.

In her letter to the Globe on March 31, Kerry McCuaig, fellow in early childhood policy at the Atkinson Centre of the University of Toronto, wrote, “all the full-day children (in the OISE study) were significantly ahead of their half-day counterparts in self-regulation, which includes impulse control and the ability to focus on tasks. Research is showing that self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining the grades children achieve in school, attendance, time spent on homework, how aggressive they are, and even how vulnerable they are to risky behaviour as teens.” 

In fact, the body of evidence suggests that early childhood learning before and right through full-day kindergarten is not the expensive frill its detractors claim; rather, it is an essential aspect of a student’s entire academic career, and a fundamental predictor of human health and social stability. 

The only debate that now makes sense having is how best to implement these programs universally and publicly across Canada. 

 

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Training the literate mind: the younger the better

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As two New Brunswick political leaders duke it out over the wisdom of a school policy that neither seems to fully comprehend, at least one educator is fixing her gaze on the only issue that truly matters in the pedagogical careers of this province’s young and malleable: Literacy or, more precisely, the lack of it.

NDP Leader Dominic Cardy threw down the gauntlet last week when he blamed low proficiency rates of reading and writing in New Brunswick on the provincial system of fast-forwarding effectively failed students through high school graduation and into colleges and universities.

Vowing to change this perfidious policy in the unlikely event that he should one day form a government, he declared at an editorial board meeting of Brunswick News, “If you’re a good teacher you’re going to do everything you can to make sure that your kids are doing well and you are going to pass them on to the next level.

“But if you’re not as good or the kid is that much more difficult, it takes a lot of the incentives out of the system if there is no social consequence for the child not doing well and there is no professional reason for the teacher to work harder,” adding, “You can’t fail right now.”

To which the Progressive Conservative Premier David Alward predictably harumphed in disdain to reporters: “There is no ‘no-failure policy’ in New Brunswick,’ . . .there are children who do, for various reasons, spend more than one year in a grade level  – that is done in a collaborative process in co-operation with parents, with a teacher, to identify what’s best for the child.”

Indeed, he boasted, “We have an inclusive education system in our province, which we are leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

That, of course, is solely a matter of opinion as there is nothing empirically testable about the claim.

On the other hand, Mr. Cardy’s approach – holding kids back a grade or two until they learn how to read in a system that couldn’t manage to teach them the first time around – seems almost mad.

Meanwhile, Marilyn Luscombe, president of New Brunswick Community College wisely avoids the blame-game altogether and suggests that low literacy is a far more complex problem than the province’s politicos – who adore their policy footballs – care to concede. “We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations,” she told the Telegraph-Journal recently.

“(We have to) figure out more clearly who does what and how we can ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful. It’s much more than the no-fail policy. It’s a lot of elements.”

In fact, teaching kids how to read is not essentially the function of primary – certainly not secondary – school educators. Expecting them to take the lead misses the point of graduated learning and baldly ignores every gradient in human development.

Learning first words, and learning them well, happens in early childhood education programs, pre-school and, ultimately, the home, where mum and dad and older brother and sister help junior practice until perfect. That’s because nature has programmed our species to learn best before age five. These are the optimal years for acquiring languages, developing math skills and recognizing spatial relationships.

It stands to reason that if we want literate, critical, thinkers populating our universities and trade schools, we should spend most of our energies and resources on the early years.

Of course, one point on which all – feuding politicians and bemused educators, alike – can agree: Low literacy costs society in material and tangible ways. It taps the social welfare system, and drives up poverty and homelessness rates. Some studies have even suggested that it increases the incidence of crime, mental illness and drug addiction.

Is there, then, much sense in jawboning about rickety middle and high school matriculation policies – which don’t make an iota of difference to the structurally illiterate and innumerate – that distract us from the issue that truly matters?

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Caring for others starts early in life

He's empathy incarnate!

He’s empathy incarnate!

Empathy, that linchpin of the bonds that keep society from running off the rails, has taken a beating over the past few years. One needn’t spend much time scrutinizing the headlines for evidence of spreading spiritual unease.

We saw it in the financial meltdown of 2008, and in the subsequent, public-sector fiscal crises that afflicted the world’s leading economies. We saw it in cutbacks to social services and poverty reduction programs. We saw it in our communities, on our streets and, perhaps, even in ourselves.

“What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic,” blared a headline in Scientific American in 2011. “Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate,” the article began. “A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

Now, according to a piece in Forbes magazine last December, “research, by Rice University sociologist (Erin Cech) who also has a degree in electrical engineering, finds that engineering students graduate from college less concerned about public welfare than when they entered. . . Cech says her findings suggest that topics relating to empathy and public welfare need to be integrated into all of engineering undergraduates’ coursework.”

In reality, the subject of empathy has moved, of late, out of the health and wellness community and into the marketplace, itself. Some economists are even treating it like a verifiable, measurable commodity in a world that appears to be running out of the stuff.

“The ability to see the world through the eyes of others is an economic imperative,” Todd Hirsch, a Calgary economist wrote in the Globe and Mail last summer. “If empathy were given the attention it deserves, companies would find new ways to please their customers. Innovators would dream up systems that save time and money. Conflicts would be resolved more easily. And maybe – just maybe – engineers would design products that are simple to use.”

But if empathy is such an important social, economic and technological enabler in productive adults, it is a quality that’s best and most easily acquired early in life, when the mind is young and supple.

In fact, one of the central tenets of comprehensive, play-oriented early childhood education (ECE) is teaching empathy to preschoolers. Putting oneself in another person’s shoes. Coping with strong emotions, especially one’s own. Understanding and respecting different points of view, needs and desires. All are essential lessons to learn  in a safe, positive, nurturing environment.

That’s not to say that such environments don’t exist in other settings: schools, community centers and homes. Of course they do. Indeed, far too much time and energy have been invested in the rhetoric of divisiveness, as if the institutions devoted to children’s welfare ought to operate separately behind locked doors.

What a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE should do is open all the doors of the village, as it were.

“The feeling of being included is a prerequisite for early learning,” states the groundbreaking Canadian Early Years Study 3. “Children and their families are part of broader communities: neighbourhood, faith, ethnocultural, school professional and workplace. Children bring traditional practices, values, beliefs and the experiences of family and community to early childhood programs. Their sense of inclusion increases in environments that allow their full participation and promotes attitudes, beliefs and values of equity and democracy.”

This, of course, is how empathy begins to take root in the child and, with hard work, faith and forbearance, grow to full flower in the adult.

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The social dividends of an early education

He deserves the best start life affords

He deserves the best start life affords

For such a dynamic, complex subject – teeming with diverse research and evidence from best practices around the world – it does seem strange that some attitudes towards early child education (ECE) in Canada remain frozen in time.

Without regard to the very real achievements of enlightened jurisdictions, administrators and practitioners in this country, the naysayers and poo-pooers continue to contend that a public system of structured, universally accessible and fully integrated ECE is, at best, an expensive frill. At worst, it’s a wobbly experiment that does not, in fact, live up to its billing.

Yet, the results of a study, released in September, of 693 Ontario kids in Grade One showed convincingly that those who had participated in two years of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in that province were far better equipped to thrive in school than those who had not.

The research, undertaken by Queen’s and MacMaster universities concluded, “Overall, students in FDK are better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school. In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development. Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent; in language and cognitive development from 15.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent; (and) in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent.”

At the time, some likened this to winning educations lottery. Others, however, remained unmoved.

In October, McMaster professor of public economics Philip DeCicca told a national columnist that preschool outcomes are not things that “can be studied in a rigorous way” and intimated that the money required for such programming might be used to more efficacious effect.

I would argue just the opposite.

Preschool – specifically, early child education – is, in fact, something that has been studied “in a rigorous way” both here in Canada and around the world for a number of years. The question is not whether we can afford ECE. The question is whether we can afford to do without it.

This past fall, the Solutions Network of the United Nations issued its long-awaited report, “The Future Of Our Children: Lifelong, Multi-Generational Learning For Sustainable Development”. In it, the organization recommends that “all girls and boys complete affordable and high-quality early childhood development programs, and primary and secondary education to prepare them for the challenges of modern life and decent livelihoods (and that) all youth and adults have access to continuous lifelong learning to acquire functional literacy, numeracy, and skills to earn a living through decent employment or self-employment.”

Meanwhile, as a means to fight the pernicious and growing income disparity in much of the developed world, The Economist (a sober voice of pragmatism if ever there was one) issued this appeal in a September editorial: “A two-part agenda drawing on ideas from both left and right, aimed at reducing boondoggles for the affluent and increasing investment in the young, could achieve a lot. . .Investment in the young should focus on early education. Pre-school is a crucial first step to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, and America is an international laggard. According to the OECD, it ranks only 28th out of 38 leading economies in the proportion of four-year-olds in education.”

All of which confirms that ECE is not the expensive frill or wobbly experiment  skeptics and detractors would have us believe. On the contrary, it is a tangible, real-world application for fighting some of society’s biggest problems. What’s more governments from Sweden to the UK to right here at home in Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and (if I correctly understand the sentiments of Brian Gallant, New Brunswick’s Liberal aspirant to the provincial premiership) are committed to success.

The sooner some of our more frigid attitudes on this complex, dynamic subject begin to thaw, the better for our children; the better for all of us.

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Valuable lessons from La belle province

What price doth the future demand?

What price doth the future demand?

Although Quebec’s Charter of Values is not, by any sane measure, a beacon of wise public policy, at least two of its civic programs indisputably are: its public child care initiative and its school system.

Fifteen years ago, La belle province launched universal, full-day, $7-per-diem early childhood education, a program unlike any other in Canada and one that a recent Globe and Mail report described as a “a wildly ambitious experiment in society-building – a controversial $2.2-billion bet that better daycare can not only transform child development but also vastly improve the prospects of women and the poor, and build a better labour force.”

Today, 15 years later, Quebec teenagers are among the most mathematically proficient secondary schoolers in the world; on par with their counterparts in Japan, and not far off the mark set by those in Macau-China. 

Considering that the rest of Canada declined precipitously in the 2012 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development survey, compared with results from 2006 and 2009, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Quebec’s structured and integrated approach – a “whole child” concept that provides both consistent and standardized learning opportunities from pre-kindergarten to post-grade school – is actually working.

That may come as a great disappointment to libertarian brand warriors, both in and out  of government, who believe that schools should reflect the diversity and often unequal capabilities of the “customers” they serve. 

For many, the Bush-era mantra of “no child left behind” means literally that: by hook or by crook, all kids matriculate either to university or into the workforce, regardless of their respective abilities to make change from a five dollar bill or find the square root of four (spoiler alert: it’s two).

That’s one reason why falling high school drop-out rates in Canada provides only false hope to educators, parents and employers. A far more serious problem is the widening skills gap – a complex problem that many experts say is exacerbated by rickety educational apparatus across the country.

“Jobs are being created, but we simply don’t have enough skills in the right place at the right time,” Alistair Cox, the chief executive of international recruiting firm Hays PLC told the Globe in October. “Sadly, there is a lot of friction in the system, which will make [the jobs mismatch] worse as the economy improves. . .Companies are really struggling to find the high-end niche skills that they need for the jobs that are available.”

Added the Globe writer: “One problem in filling the skills gap is that educational institutions take so long to redirect their resources to the jobs that are opening up, while immigration rules are being ‘tuned to mass and unskilled migration issues, as opposed to highly skilled migration,’ Mr. Cox said.”

It may well be as Paul Cappon, a senior fellow at the graduate school of international and public policy at the University of Ottawa, tells the Globe this week: “Canada will continue its decline in all international rankings in the education field until it develops a national strategy – including standards and shared learning outcomes for all age and grade levels.”

But Quebec’s example suggests that such ambitions are worthy. They even become workable when you consider the economic impact.

“We estimate that in 2008 universal access to low-fee childcare in Quebec induced nearly 70,000 more mothers to hold jobs than if no such program existed – an increase of 3.8 per cent in women employment,” concluded a report by Canadian economists Pierre Fortin, Luc Godbout and Suxie St.-Cerny a few years ago. “By our calculation, Quebec’s domestic income was higher by about 1.7 per cent ($5 billion) as a result. We find that the tax-transfer return the federal and Quebec governments get from the program significantly exceeds its cost.”

Indeed, given the larger and longer-term contributions of a national model of early childhood learning and disciplined public education to the country’s prosperity and competitiveness, any program would be a bargain at thrice the price of Quebec’s.

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Banging the drum loudly for early learning

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As Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne exhumes the corpse of John Maynard Keynes and pivots from belt-tightening to sluice-opening in her bid to jumpstart the nation’s largest provincial economy, fiscal conservatives are already muttering darkly about the consequences.

Now, they say, is the time for more cutting, more trimming, more shaving. Now, they say, is not the time for economic stimulus of any sort, for what governments in a spending mood like to call “strategic investments”. Ontario, insists the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, “does have room to cut.”

Why, wasn’t it just two years ago when Don Drummond, an economist, suggested that Ontario get its fiscal house in order by avoiding a few costly distractions, including full-day kindergarten, “the cost of which,” The Globe says, the good fellow “pegged at $1.5 billion.”

This is, of course, just the sort of false economy that deficit hawks and their ideologically right-wing fellow travellers love to embrace. And it’s one reason why Canada does not maintain a universally accessible, structured system of early childhood education, integrated into public schools nationwide.

Nope. As parents and grandparents, our political leaders assure, we know best. About everything. We are the bosses of our home lives, the masters of the little blighters we bring into the world. You can keep you nanny state. Just send me my Child Tax Benefit and stay out of my way.

Fortunately, this partisan pabulum doesn’t fortify everyone whose opinions count on subjects economic. It doesn’t, for example, move Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group.

In a paper, penned and dated October 25, the economist states that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run.”

Specifically, he notes, “Investing more in children would help to address Canada’s essential skills challenge. Evidence from an international benchmark study on literacy showed that 5-in-10 Canadians have literacy skills below the desired level for a modern knowledge based economy, while 6-in-10 have below desired numeracy skills. Canada’s performance in the 2012 survey was weaker than in the prior surveys in 2003 and 1994. And, Canadian youths scored lower than the average of youths in other industrialized economies.”

What’s more, “Raising investment in early childhood education would bring long-term benefits. Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”

The obvious question is: What are we waiting for?

Erecting a national system of early childhood education might cost as much as $4 billion. But that’s a bargain given the savings promised through lower incidence of poverty, joblessness and crime and higher rates of entrepreneurship, innovation and productivity.

As Mr. Alexander points out, “Businesses strive to balance short-term priorities with their long-term strategies. The same is true for policymakers. Governments . . .can’t lose sight of the need to develop the most skilled labour force of the future. And, the future is our children. This calls for much more investment in high equality early childhood education and better access for such services for low and middle income Canadians.”

In fact, a recent precedent on the kindergarten front supports the broader argument.

“When looking at the evidence,” writes Charles Pascal (a professor at the University of Toronto, and former early learning adviser to the Premier of Ontario) in a recent piece for The Toronto Star, “the number of children with risk factors who have had two years of full-day kindergarten has dropped from 27 per cent to 20 per cent. Even after one year of Ontario’s world-class play-based learning program led by our highly competent early learning educators, risk in the area of language and cognitive development has plummeted a stunning 75 per cent.”

These aren’t mere conjectures; they are tangible results. And they should be enough to convince even the most uncompromising austerity devotee in our midst.

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Learning life’s lessons early and often

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Apart from global warming, few issues in Canada provide readier cannon fodder for partisan warfare than early childhood education. That’s because, when it comes to her kids, every mum is willing to fight to the death on the battlefields of ideology.

When should the state intervene with structured pedagogy? When a tyke is five years old, or four or three? When she’s a toddler? What’s wrong with private daycare? For that matter, what’s wrong keeping your youngster tethered to your apron strings for as long as possible?

Politicians on the right side of the continuum love to make hay with this. They frame the debate, literally, as a motherhood issue. And the strategy works to marvelous effect within a certain important segment of the voting public.

The reform-minded Tory team – before it became the federal government – launched a terrific salvo into the camp of the reigning Liberals in 2005 when, as the CBC reported at the time, “Stephen Harper unveiled a Conservative plan on Monday that would give parents of young children $100 a month for child care. The. . .leader made the announcement at a noisy day-care centre in Ottawa. ‘This is just like a caucus meeting,’ he said on a campaign stop for the Jan. 23 federal election.”

The item continued: “Addressing the challenges parents face in raising kids while trying to earn a living, Harper said, ‘The Conservative plan for families will help parents find that balance.’ The Conservatives’ two-part plan includes money to help create child-care spaces as well as the $100-a-month ‘choice in child-care allowance.’ With the new allowance, families would receive $1,200 a year for each child under the age of six. . . .In fact, the only people who should be making these choices are parents, not politicians, not the government.’”

In fact, all the evidence suggested, contrarily, that early childhood education –  universally accessible, structured, and integrated into the public school system – is a boon to kids, their parents and, in fact, society at large.

A new study – reportedly the largest of its kind in Canada – seems to bear this out. The report, released earlier this week, by Queen’s and McMaster Universities found that children who attend full-day kindergarten are “better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school” than those who don’t.

That’s according to a blurb on the Ontario government’s website, which also states: “Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.2 per cent; reduced risks in language and cognitive development from 16.4 per cent to 4.3 per cent; reduced risks in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.6 per cent.”

How much better prepared would they be if they had access to a national early childhood education (pre-kindergarten) system shouldn’t be a matter of conjecture. A seminal report on the subject, The Early Years Study 3, published in 2011, is both categorical and convincing: “Researchers have found that parents whose children attend programs that are integrated into their school are much less anxious than their neighbours whose kids are in the regular jumbled system. Direct gains have also been documented for children. Evaluations of Sure Start in the UK, Communities for Children in Australia and Toronto First Duty found children in neighbourhoods with integrated children’s services showed better social development, more positive social behaviour and greater independence/self-regulation compared with children living in similar areas without an integrated program.”

Naturally, there is a cost. But there’s also a reward. And as The Early Years Study 3 points out, the return far outweighs the investment: “Economist Robert Fairholm. . . (shows) how investing in educational child care (is) a handsdown winner. Investing $1 million in child care would create at least 40 jobs, 43 per cent more jobs than the next highest industry and four times the number of jobs generated by $1 million in construction spending. Every dollar invested in child care increases the economy’s output (GDP) by $2.30.”

These considerations, alongside the evidence of improving outcomes for kids, makes you wonder not whether our society can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford our society without it.

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