Why we need to expand early learning programs

In a Vancouver Sun feature article, UBC’s Hillel Goelman reviews evidence on early childhood education and makes the case for universal pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds. Dollar for dollar this is probably the best investment would could make as a society. But progress has been slow, as it has been framed as a family issue by both sides.

The educational component is critical, and this means talking about such programs as “early learning” and “pre-school” rather than term “child care”, which conotates babysitting. I keep trying to hammer this point with child care activists, who have by and large tried to frame this issue as enabling women’s labour market participation (which riles up the stay-at-home moms). Women’s equality is a benefit of immense magnitude, but like K-12, it is a rider on the education component, which is where we make the pitch to the general public. And by explicitly talking about education, we raise the bar in terms of quality standards automatically. But there is such a deep attachment to framing this as “child care”, to which my response is something like “get used to losing”.

A leg up for kids: Research shows that quality pre-school programs pay off in key skills and knowlege for school and for life

Hillel Goelman
Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

… One major factor that makes a huge difference in healthy development is children’s participation in high quality pre-school, child care or pre-kindergarten programs. These play-based, discovery-oriented programs facilitate and stimulate children’s learning in age-appropriate early childhood settings by drawing upon their strengths, curiosity and interests. Further, these programs acknowledge that parents are children’s first and best teachers, working in partnership with families to support and complement parenting roles.

The non-partisan National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University reviewed the results of major pre-kindergarten programs in Michigan, New Jersey, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia. Steven Barnett, an economist and director of the NIEER, concluded that, “Children who attended state-funded pre-school showed gains in vocabulary scores that were about 31 per cent greater than gains of children without the program.”

Barnett further found that that children who participated in pre-school programs showed a 44 per cent improvement in math skills and an 85 per cent improvement in print awareness and knowledge of letter-sound associations, and knew more about print, literacy, words and books.

The NIEER team found that not only did children in New Jersey’s program show similar “substantial” gains by the end of kindergarten but that “these gains are largely sustained during the kindergarten year.” The New Jersey data showed that “children who attend pre-school for two years at both age three and four significantly out-perform those who attend for only one year at four years of age or do not attend at all.”

The authors of these studies emphasize that the important factor here is that these pre-school programs were high quality. Among their characteristics :

* They do not conflict with parents’ roles as the first and most important teachers in their children’s lives.

* Participation is voluntary, accessible and affordable, never compulsory.

* Programs are not “institutionalized” or regimented. Rather they facilitate and stimulate early learning. They exist in a wide variety of settings including publicly and privately operated pre-schools, nursery schools, faith-based pre-schools, parent cooperative pre-schools, Montessori programs, licensed group child care programs, licensed family child care programs, and special needs centres.

* They have favourable adult-child ratios, staff members trained in early childhood care, and supportive interactions between adults and children and among the children in the program.

* The programs in these samples benefited from three key ingredients: The children attended these programs frequently and each session lasted a sufficient duration (at least 3 1/2 hours), allowing for a level of program intensity to challenge and stimulate the children.

Economist Robert Lynch (of the Economic Policy Institute) demonstrates … that such programs can be delivered in a cost-effective manner. Lynch estimated the average cost of a pre-kindergarten program at $6,300 US per child. He then calculated the benefits to society through higher levels of school completion, lower levels of special education, and lower levels of welfare, incarceration and teen pregnancy.

He found, for example, that in South Carolina, a state with a slightly larger population than British Columbia, the annual cost of running a universal pre-kindergarten program would be about $442 million per year. His model shows, however, that within nine years the program would begin to pay for itself, and by 2050 the benefits of the program would $9.2 billion and the costs would only be $1.2 billion. Lynch’s conclusion is that by providing children with “enriched” early childhood programs, society will benefit with a more skilled, more productive and less dependent labour force.

Yet not only is there a serious dearth of these successful programs in Canada — outside of Quebec with extensive child care, and Ontario with junior kindergarten programs — governments have chosen to pursue other policies not consistent with the evidence. … The provinces and territories also invest relatively small amounts in some child care programs but not enough to ensure quality, universality and affordability. These governments also offer a range of part-time, drop-in parent support programs that do not fit the criteria of program frequency, duration or intensity.

… With minimal public funding support to date, parents, early childhood educators and communities have developed licensed child care spaces for almost 20 per cent of B.C.’s young children. By directing increased public funding to quality, affordability and expansion of these programs, universal pre-kindergarten could be developed for all three- and four-year-olds.

Core public funding of 15 to 20 hours per week would provide free pre-kindergarten programming in a range of settings — pre-schools, centre-based child care programs, licensed family child care and school-based programs. Working parents would then pay an affordable fee for additional hours of early childhood education and care in these quality settings. …

Hillel Goelman is the director of the CHILD Project and senior scholar at the Human Early Learning Partnership, University of British Columbia.

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