Globe and Mail

How we're cheating our children

Toddlers can learn, but we don't bother to teach them early enough, a crusader argues

Thursday, April 1, 1999
MARGARET PHILP
Education Reporter

Plopped on her mother's lap, mouthing the words of a story being read to the noisy assemblage of children who sit cross-legged around her, Eden Higgins is a veteran of early childhood education.

At 3, she can spell her own name, write the alphabet and piece together an entire puzzle with the concentration of an older child.

Almost all her short life, she has come with her mother to the parenting centre in Winchester Public School in downtown Toronto.

Since stumbling upon the centre, its shelves brimming with toys and its closets stocked with homemade learning games crafted from dollar-store trinkets, Eden's mother, Margarida Avila, has become a disciple of the science of her child's brain.

"I've been taught all about brain development here and the stages of learning a child goes through," Ms. Avila said.

"And I've learned so much from other parents. About teething. About fevers. It's been great to come here and talk to other mothers, and say, 'Oh, your child does that too. What a relief.' "

The Toronto District School Board's 34 parenting centres and their simple notion of teaching poor and middle-class parents alike to feed their children's fast-growing brains through play have captivated Fraser Mustard.

Dr. Mustard, 71, a celebrated medical researcher and social scientist with a gruff charm and a slew of honorary degrees, has seized on education in the first few years of life as a magic bullet for Canada's social and academic woes.

He is calling for a new education system for preschoolers through the creation of what he calls early-childhood-development and parenting centres -- an investment "at least as important as our investment in the education system, and probably more important than postsecondary education."

For Dr. Mustard, it is not just the fate of poor children without the trappings of middle class that hangs in the balance. What happens in the first few years shapes a child's academic and social well-being later in life, and he insists that far more middle-class than poor children are headed for behavioural problems and trouble in school.

And, unusual in this deficit-crunching, tax-cutting era, Dr. Mustard appears to be turning the heads of hardened politicians such as Ontario Premier Mike Harris, who has the power -- and possibly the political will -- to do something about it.

For as long as childcare advocates have agitated for a national daycare system, no one to match Dr. Mustard's profile and influence has made quite as airtight a case for early childhood education for everyone.

He has done so, with his co-chairwoman, former New Brunswick lieutenant-governor Margaret McCain, in a task-force report commissioned by Mr. Harris himself. Called the Early Years Learning Study, it was submitted to the Premier's Office six weeks ago, is slated for public release within the next few weeks, and is widely expected to surface again in the text of the provincial government's Speech from the Throne.

The importance of the early years is hardly news to Kathy Kathy, co-ordinator of the parenting centre at Winchester school.

For the past decade, as she has read stories, sung songs, played games, cuddled babies and advised parents in her cramped, sun-streaked classroom, she has watched hundreds of children graduate from the parenting centre to kindergarten with an academic advantage over children who remained at home.

Not only had the parenting-centre children mastered the classroom rituals of taking turns, sharing and speaking in front of a group of other children, the kindergarten teacher observed over the years that their grasp of colours, letters, numbers, books and language was a step ahead of those of classmates with no history in parenting centres or childcare.

Last June, before teacher Barbara Pryce retired after 20 years in Winchester's kindergarten class, she wrote to the Toronto school board noting "a general and increasing improvement in the group interactions and readiness skills" of her young charges in the years after the parenting centre opened its doors.

"Absolutely, these kids are more ready to learn when they start school," Ms. Kathy said. "Our children are not only more ready to learn, but they keep ahead of the other kids. We don't have the research to prove it, but those kids are doing extremely well in school even later on in Grades 5 and 6."

In fact, Dr. Mustard does have the research -- Canadian data that show children considered ready to learn by the time they start school are set for a lifetime of academic success.

It comes from Canada's National Longitudinal Survey of children and Youth, a massive collection of information about 22,000 children over time rivalled by few countries in the world. The survey shows -- among thousands of findings -- that notoriously substandard mathematics test scores by Ontario students seem to have their roots in low academic scores recorded back in kindergarten.

Douglas Willms, director of the Atlantic Centre for Policy Research at the University of New Brunswick and a major contributor to Dr. Mustard's report, has crunched the statistics.

"If you look at a measure of vocabulary at ages 4 and 5 just before children enter school," he said, "there are more kids in Ontario who have low vocabulary scores than in the rest of Canada in both urban and rural areas alike. And it's not simply an immigrant effect.

"children's development begins at birth, and during those early critical years, the effects of parenting and good preschooling determine the child's capacity. You want the child to get to the school door with a capacity to learn. If that's not in place in kindergarten, then the child will likely be on a slower trajectory throughout school."

The discovery that academic futures can be predicted by children's abilities when they first walk into kindergarten has sent social scientists scurrying to invent tools to measure the "readiness to learn" of preschoolers.

Next week, Ontario's Educational Quality and Accountability Office will start testing students in 52 senior-kindergarten classrooms across the province for their prowess in reading, writing, math and oral language. It will be a trial run of an assessment tool commissioned by the province at the same time it commissioned Dr. Mustard to write his report.

At the end of this month, another new test will measure the readiness to learn of about 14,000 junior and senior kindergarten students at all public elementary schools within the boundaries of the former cities of Toronto and North York. It will allow researchers to compare the early brain development of children from different schools, communities and, ultimately, life circumstances.

"Of all the things that do a child in, school difficulties dwarf everything else," said Dan Offord, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies of children at Risk in Hamilton, who invented the readiness-to-learn measure and was a big contributor to Dr. Mustard's report.

"But rather than trying to fix the problem after things have broken down, are there things we should be doing to stop the bad things from happening in the first place? There's got to be a way, and there's increasing evidence that the one place, the best place, to put your resources and money is the first six years of life."

Intrigued by the promise of readiness to learn, Human Resources Development Canada has kicked in money to fund the measure, along with the Invest in Kids Foundation and Ontario's Educational Quality and Accountability Office. Indeed, federal Human Resources Minister Pierre Pettigrew plans to set aside a budget to fund readiness-to-learn assessment elsewhere in Canada. Vancouver, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Manitoba have expressed an interest in Dr. Offord's measure.

In Ontario, despite a track record of throwing childcare in schools into jeopardy and nearly scrapping junior kindergarten, Mr. Harris has leaped onto the early-years bandwagon and, according to Dr. Mustard, wants to be remembered in the history books for instituting Ontario's shift into early childhood development.

And well he might be.

There are those math scores. The province's schoolchildren have lagged behind the rest of the country in math scores for years. The National Longitudinal Survey found that Grade 6 students trailed the national average in 1996, scoring more than a full grade level behind students in Quebec. When Canada's Council of Ministers of Education released results of math tests written by 13- and 16-year-old students across Canada that year, the gap between the two provinces had swelled even more.

"We suspect that the differences between Ontario and Quebec have largely to do with a faster-based curriculum and higher expectations for achievement [in Quebec]," Prof. Willms said.

How far the Ontario government will rise to the challenge, if at all, remains the big question.

Queen's Park is clearly uneasy with the notion of a universal early-childhood program for all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. And in a recent letter, David Lindsay, the Premier's former principal secretary who was involved in commissioning the report, cautioned Dr. Mustard to couch the issue "as a challenge to society, not as a challenge to government."

And indeed, Dr. Mustard takes pains to spread the onus for change. His recommended system of early-childhood education would not be run by the province, nor would it be financed entirely by government.

He imagines communities inventing their own early-childhood-development and parenting centres -- as the former Toronto public school board did with its stable of parenting centres 18 years ago -- with support from a mix of government, charitable foundations and corporations taking advantage of new tax incentives.

He sees more generous parental-leave provisions. And more companies opening their doors to children's centres on their premises.

"If society's not prepared to mobilize itself to do this, no political structure can do it," he said. "There is a duality here between the government and its constituency to move this forward."

WHAT'S IN THE TEST

Here's how Ontario's Educational Quality and Accountability Office will test children in 52 senior kindergarten classes starting next week.

The goal is to assess student prowess in reading, writing, math and oral language. Teachers will observe a number of play-based learning activities and group students in four learning stages, ranging from "just beginning" to "taking off."

Some examples:

AFFLUENCE NO GUARANTEE

The National Longitudinal Survey shows that poor children (11 years and under) are more prone to poor academic achievement and behaviour problems than their more affluent counterparts, but not by much. After dividing participants into four equal groups on the basis of their families' incomes, researcher Douglas Willms found the lowest income group had more youngsters in danger of becoming under-achievers. But "the vast majority of vulnerable children are in the top three-quarters." "If you have an intervention that's directed only at low-income families," he explains, "you will miss most of your vulnerable children because children's vulnerability cuts right across the income spectrum."

INCOME

Lowest               35.5%


Lower                28.4%


Upper                26.0%


Highest              22.5%

Source: Douglas Willms from his forthcoming book, Vulnerable Children (University of Alberta Press).

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