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Archive for the ‘Early Childhood Education’ Category

One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

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Hundreds of children in Canada’s Ocean Playground” (aka Nova Scotia) entering school for the first time  in September 2018 will be prevented from using the playground equipment in their own schoolyards.  In Atlantic Canada’s largest school district, Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE), parents were only alerted to the new rules affecting children under 5 years in June 2018 newsletters that advised them about “risk management advice” about the use of playground equipment during the school day. The news provoked quite a reaction and prompted Halifax playground expert Alex Smith to post a stinging July 2018 critique headed “Look- Don’t Play” on his widely-read PlayGroundology Blog.

The Halifax school district, like many across Nova Scotia, used the Canadian Safety Association (CSA) standards for outdoor play as a rationale for barring all Junior Primary and Senior Primary (not only ages 3-4 children , but also those age 5), from using the school playground equipment.  School administration had been alerted to the potential problem back in the fall of 2017 at the time of the announcement of an expanded provincial Pre-Primary program. Instead of introducing kids to the joys of outdoor play, principals and teachers will be occupied trying to keep them off the equipment.

Nova Scotia is not alone in ‘bubble-wrapping kids’ on school playgrounds. It is just far more widespread because most of the province’s schools are only equipped with older, off-the shelf, equipment with CSA safety restrictions. Instead of phasing-in the introduction of Pre-Primary programs with playground upgrades, the N.S. Education Department has plowed full steam ahead without considering the importance of providing purpose-built kindergarten play areas.

Vocal critics of school and recreation officials who restrict child’s play are quick to cite plenty of other Canadian examples. Back in November 2011, a Toronto principal at Earl Beatty Elementary School  sparked a loud parent outcry when she banned balls from school grounds. One Canadian neighbourhood, Artisan Gardens on Vancouver Island, achieved international infamy in a June 2018 Guardian feature claiming that the local council had “declared war on fun” by passing a bylaw banning all outside play from the street, prohibiting children from chalk drawing. bike riding, and street hockey.

Such stories make for attention-grabbing headlines, but they tend to miss the significance of the changing dynamics of play in Canada and elsewhere. Protecting kids at all times has been the dominant practice, but fresh thinking is emerging on the importance of “free play” in child development. Alex Smith of PlayGroundology is in the forefront of the growing movement to replace “fixed equipment play” with “adventure sites” and “loose parts play.” While aware that child safety is a priority, the “free play” advocates point to evidence-based research showing the critical need for kids to learn how to manage risk and to develop personal resilience.

School superintendents advocating for the retention and revitalization of recess can be allies in the cause of ensuring kids have regular play time.  Some school district officials, however, seem to thrive on “over-programming kids” and see recess as another time to be planned and regulated. Typical of the current crop of North American senior administrators is Michael J. Hynes, Ed.D., Superintendent of Schools for the Patchogue-Medford School District (Long Island, NY). Providing a decent school recess, in his view, is just another solution to the “mental health issues” affecting many of today’s schoolchildren. Makes you wonder how ‘liberated’ kids would be on those playgrounds.

Larger Canadian school districts in Ontario have managed to avoid the CSA playground standards debacle.  The five-year Ontario implementation  plan for Full Day Junior Kindergarten, starting in 2010-11, included funding to redevelop playgrounds for children ages 3.8 to 5 years. In the case of the York Region District School Board, outdoor learning spaces in their 160 elementary schools were gradually converted, school-by-school into natural “outdoor learning spaces” with fewer and fewer high risk climbing structures. Outdoor creative play and natural settings were recreated, often in fenced-in junior playground areas. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), targeted funding allowed for similar changes, over 5-years, in some 400 schools.

Converting all elementary school playgrounds can be prohibitively expensive for school districts without the resources of these Ontario boards. Instead of investing heavily in the latest “creative play equipment and facilities,” playground experts like Alex Smith recommend taking a scaled-down, more affordable approach. Many of Halifax’s after school Excel programs adopted loose parts play following a presentation on risk and play by the UK children’s play advocate Tim Gill three years ago.  His message to school officials everywhere: “Loose parts play is doable from a budget, training and implementation perspective. What an opportunity!” 

What message are we sending to children entering school when they are barred from using playground equipment?  Should expanding early learning programs be planned with a program philosophy integrating indoor and outdoor play?  Is there a risk that we are robbing today’s kids of their childhood by over-protecting them in schools? When does ‘bubble-wrapping’ children become a problem? 

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The Inverness Community Leadership Centre in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, is edging closer to realization. A former coal mine office is about to be transformed through a $2 million renovation into Nova Scotia’s first “children’s zone” development initially housing two innovative local ventures, the Early Years Co-op and the Inverness Cottage Workshop for intellectually disabled adults, with plans to add an entrepreneurship centre. In it’s conception, the little venture is actually inspired more by American than Canadian precedents.

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Campaigning to eradicate child poverty and promoting universal social support programs remain the well-worn Canadian policy approaches to “closing the income gap.” Community reconstruction in Inverness is markedly different because it begins and ends with children, youth and families. Much like glittery American ventures such as Harlem Children’s Zone and Promise Neighborhoods, it taps into the enormous, largely underutilized potential of community-based, child-centred alternatives.

The ambitious project in Inverness, a struggling Cape Breton town of 2,000 souls, is anything but an overnight success. It’s clearly the brainchild of a true visionary, Jim Mustard, a messianic Town Councillor with Early Child Development in his DNA. He is, after all, the son of the late Dr. Fraser Mustard, the world renowned McMaster University pediatrician famous for promoting maternal health and early childhood education.

Mustard was at his passionate best at the March 2015 Dalhousie Shift Rural Symposium. “We need to embrace children from birth,” he said, “and if we don’t provide Early Years programs now, there will be problems down the road. If we make our children the North Star, then we’ll stay on track.”

An Early Years Co- Op was only the first step for Mustard. He’s out to rebuild an entire community. “The idea is to generate a sense of community. It needs to feel like a kitchen table gathering with people just hanging out,” he remarked in December 2013. ”When you think of the expertise that will appear in an informal setting it will trump all the rest of it.”

Early learning is gradually advancing in Nova Scotia, by baby steps, and it is vital to the longer-term social regeneration agenda. Since the 2012 Canadian Pediatrics Society (CPS) report, the province has come onside. For every dollar spent on the early childhood years, governments now see a $4 to $6 return to society in terms of more productive youth and reduced expenditures for juvenile justice, jails and social assistance.

Child and family poverty remains a stark reality in Nova Scotia, especially outside of Halifax. Since 2000, the target year for the eradication of child poverty, Dr. Lesley Frank of Acadia University reports that the child poverty rate (22.2%) has barely budged, in spite of modest increases in the minimum wage and child support programs.

Children, youth and families in lower income homes bore the brunt of the brutal 2008-10 economic recession. One in 3 children (32.6%) in Cape Breton are living in poverty, compared to 24.4% in Kentville, 24.3% in New Glasgow, 21.8% in Truro, and 18.6% in Halifax. While child poverty statistics are hard to find in Yarmouth,  there’s a steady demand for shelter at SHYFT Youth Services, responding to the needs of homeless youth.

Most of the remedial measures bandied about — legislating a living wage, introducing the Guaranteed Basic Income, or province-wade subsidized child care — are well known. Most often they are proposed by Canadian child welfare activists committed to restoring the diminished and porous social safety net.

Establishing children’s zones and embarking upon social reconstruction street-by-street are still new and mysterious here in Nova Scotia and in other regions of Canada. One notable exception is the Toronto District School Board, where, since 2009, the TDSB’s Inner City Advisory Committee has assessed and ranked its neediest or “priority” school communities. That Learning Opportunities Index (LOI) identified some 77 school neighbourhoods where “children from lower income families” face “significant barriers” to ” achieving high educational outcomes.”

The Toronto LOI project is a promising first step, openly acknowledging that not all public school communities are equal. It can also be an extremely valuable indicator of where a school system needs to target its educational resources. The Toronto board, however, is less clear in how the LOI is actually being used. Beyond reporting in 2014 that LOI is utilized to “help allocate staff and other resources” it’s hard to identify visible, targeted programmatic initiatives.

Looking south to the United States, the initial glow surrounding Geoffrey Canada’s signature project, the Harlem Children’s Zone, has faded as time and student results tone down the somewhat unrealistic transformative expectations. While Canada’s project falls short of being “The Harlem Miracle,” it has produced measurable gains for kids living in one of North America’s most disadvantaged urban districts.

Now that Geoffrey Canada has stepped down as CEO of Harlem Chidren’s Zone (HCZ), more objective assessments of its success are appearing. Although they focus on HCZ, the appraisals may well apply to the replica projects supported by President Barack Obama in 20 different cities across the United States. Already, it is clear that allocating $60 million to the Promise Neighborhood projects in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, will be insufficient to duplicate HCZ that required over $200 million to make a dent in schools serving 8,000 children and 6,000 adults across 97 blocks of Harlem.

HCZGeoffreyCanada

Critics of Geoffrey Canada and his HCZ tend to miss the whole point of his massive social reconstruction project. Through his work with HCZ’s precursor, Rheedlen Centres for Children and Families, Canada learned that child and family poverty was not amenable to eradication when projects focused on only one dimension of the problem. Establishing charter schools alone would not work without addressing the underlying social determinants of chronic student underperformance: early childhood development, housing, and health care.  His ambitious initiative, as MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli recently noted, demonstrated how “ambitious community programs…. paired with aggressive school reform efforts” offer the best hope to “close the achievement gap” and revitalize whole communities.

American Children’s Zones, it turns out, have rather surprisingly much in common with Jim Mustard’s Inverness Community project. It too is a community-based social reconstruction venture that has the potential to change that dynamic. What Geoffrey Canada undertook in Harlem, is just the Inverness project on a gigantic scale. One look at that little Cape Breton project is enough to awaken anyone ready to think “outside the box” about the potential for child-centred models of community re-development.

What’s the real purpose of Children’s Zones in both inner city neighbourhoods and small communities? Does child-centred community redevelopment still have the potential to break the cycle of child and family poverty? If so, what’s standing in the way of its realization?

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Readiness to learn upon entering school is now recognized as critical to the success of students. Since 1998-99, an Early Development Instrument (EDI) has been used to measure child development across five domains: physical health and well-being, social knowledge and competence, emotional health/maturity, language and cognitive development, and general knowledge and communications skills. Yet recent Canadian national and provincial surveys, conducted by McMaster University’s Offord Centre for Child Studies, continue to show that one in four children (26%) are ‘vulnerable’ in one or more areas of development before entering Grade 1.

ECEKidsThe latest province to embrace the Early Child Development movement is Nova Scotia.  In late November 2014, its recently renamed Department of Education and Early Child Development became the nineth (second last) province to conduct and release its EDI survey results. To virtually no one’s surprise, some 26.8% of pupils entering primary school face learning challenges. Physical health and well-being posed the biggest hurdle for kids and in three of the province’s eight school boards, Tri-County RSB , South Shore RSB, and the Strait RSB, one in three primary schoolers (33.6 to 40.8%) showed vulnerability in at least one area of development.

The Nova Scotia statistics, based upon teacher surveys in 2012-13, only confirmed what many previous reports have shown — that Canadian provinces lag behind other developed countries when it comes to the state of early childhood development and care. It also begged the critical question –what’s standing in the way of tackling this fundamental educational policy matter?

Early childhood education across Canada is still mostly provided in piecemeal fashion.  In most provinces, except for Quebec, their is a gap between the end of parental leave and the start of formal schooling, during which parents are left on their own. Where private day care is available, it is often prohibitively expensive and alternative cooperative day care is usually in short supply.  The quality of “child care” is highly irregular, judging from provincial regulatory reports and periodic shutdowns.

While the federal and provincial governments in 2011 provided over $11 billion of funding, spending on the ECE sector still lagged behind that of other advanced nations. In November 2012, TD Economics estimated that it would take another $3 to $4 billion in investment to bring Canada up to the average of other industrialized countries.  Across Canada, of the $7.5 billion spent by provinces and territories,  the allocations averaged only 1.53% of their total budgets, ranging from 0.59% in Nunavut to 4.67% in Quebec.

Passionate advocates for universal ECE are fond of claiming that it works miracles and has substantial long-term dollar benefits.  Most studies, largely funded by Child Development or Child Welfare organizations, estimate that the benefits of early learning far outweigh the costs. For every dollar invested, the claimed benefits range from roughly 1.5 to almost 3 dollars, with the ratio rising to double digits for disadvantaged children. Such investments do save us later in terms of the longer-term expenses for juvenile justice, jails, welfare and income supports. Even so, quantifying these benefits is not an exact science, in spite of the claims of advocates.

Early childhood education initiatives tend to be expensive and run into cost over-runs. Ontario’s full day Kindergarten program, beset by escalating costs and overcrowded sites, is a case in point. A more modest venture in Prince Edward Island is proving to be more successful. The soaring costs of Quebec’s universal program are, however, enough to deter late adopters like Nova Scotia.

Quebec’s current $7-a-day early childhood program is so costly that it may not be sustainable in its current form.  Since its inception in 1997, the $2.7 billion program has become what Konrad Yakabusky recently termed “a sacred cow.” Proposing to raise the daily rates to $20 for those earning over $50,000 has recently sparked a political firestorm.  Pointing out that Quebec’s subsidized daycare sites have much higher child to staff ratios ( 5:1 vs. 3:1 to 20:1 vs. 12:1) compared to other provinces gets you nowhere with young working parents. It’s also hard to prove that the Quebec program has improved the employment rate of women of child-rearing age.

Early childhood development still deserves to be identified and acted upon as an educational priority. Public spending on early childhood care and education continues to lag and we still rank last (at 0.5% of GDP) among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries.  Looking at total spending, including child payments, parental leave benefits, and child care support, we remain 17% below the OECD average. Parents, except those in Quebec, pay 50% of the program costs, fourth highest among the OECD countries.  Now that our federal treasury is back to surplus, early learning should be a much higher national priority than doling out special, targeted tax exemptions, expressly designed to snare votes.

What’s standing in the way of a more committed, robust investment in Early Child Development at both the national and provincial levels? Given the countless reports demonstrating the learning challenges facing young children, how much longer can it be ignored or subject to underfunded, piecemeal public fixes?  Whether we decide to go universal or to target our early years investments, isn’t it time to take on the fundamental public policy issue?

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The Toronto Globe and Mail’s six part series, The Daycare Project, has put Early Years Education back where it belongs on the public policy agenda.  From October 19 to 26, Erin Anderssen and her team did a masterful job presenting the challenge facing the Canadian and provincial governments attempting to provide safe, secure, high quality daycare and early years education.

Since the federal child education initiative, developed by the Hon. Ken Dryden (costed at $5 billion over 4 years), was abandoned in 2006 by the incoming Stephen Harper government, provinces have been scrambling to come up with plans of their own.  Access to high quality, affordable child care presents serious problems for ordinary working families.  Even today, the shortage of government-regulated space remains among Canada’s most pressing child-care problems. Across the country, families are forced to rely on the “grey market” – and, Anderssen discovered, “leaving their children with caregivers who may not even have first-aid training, paying whatever is asked, and hoping for the best.”

ChildCareCostsProponents of universal state funded early learning, championed by Margaret McCain and the Canadian Council for Early Child Development, are doggedly determined in making their case.  While The Globe and Mail series had a universal publicly-funded early learning tilt, it also demonstrated quite conclusively that the Quebec model of $7.00 per day early learning costing $2.3 billion annually is cost prohibitive in other provinces. Indeed, Quebec’s current plan accounts for two-thirds of the $3.7 billion now being spent by all governments.

The Daycare Project series went beyond simply analyzing, once again, the public policy conundrum, and attempted to look for successful models that might be applicable in other countries or provinces.  A survey of daycare regimes in seven different countries seemed to give the nod to that of Sweden, a universal, affordable, education-based system developed over a 20 year period from 1970 until the early 1990s.  The Swedish model is highlighted, but no mention whatsoever is made of Finland where early education begins at age 7.  Most educational comparisons of Sweden and Finland  tend to highlight the superior performance results achieved by Finnish students.

When it came to Canada, The Globe and Mail, for once, looked to a province other than Ontario for its exemplar.  “For a top-notch child care system close to home,” Anderssen stated, “Canadians should look to the nation’s smallest province.”  In choosing PEI as the best Canadian model, the series ruled out Quebec as being too expensive and instead endorsed a model combining public and private services, but largely architected by Kathleen Flanagan, an OISE student of Dr. Charles Pascal. In short, the PEI model is Ontario, modified and improved.

The Ten Lessons presented by Anderssen to guide the national policy discussion pay lip-service to the $7 a day Quebec model, and are drawn overwhelmingly from the PEI experience over the past two or three years. “Good education and a modern family policy can start long before kids arrive at kindergarten,” she concludes, before presenting this laundry list of lessons:

1. Make the economic case clear

2. Call it education

3. Create enough regulated care spaces

4. Make fees affordable, consistent – and capped

5. Train the teachers – and pay them for it

6. Location, location, location

7. Infant care is complicated

8. After-school care shouldn’t be an afterthought

9. Parents are part of the system

10. Set a target, track your progress

Most of the identified “lessons” are sound, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that the PEI model is scalable.  It’s a tiny province with a population of 140,000, one-tenth the size of Montreal, with fewer than 6,000 children under five years of age. The total cost of its early childhood education initiative is only $7 million, compared to the more than $2.3 billion Quebec child care system.  Declining school enrollments also mean that PEI schools have plenty of surplus space, unlike most of Canada’s fast growing suburban school districts.

Omitting Ontario from the cross-national comparison was quite instructive.  While the Ontario Liberal Government has been quick to proclaim the success of its $1.5 billion full-day kindergarten program, the jury is still out on its effectiveness. By imposing full-day kindergarten, that province has incited much opposition, mainly centred on its full steam ahead bulldozing strategy.

Why did Ontario become such an early learning battleground? Private and coop day care operators facing dislocation have found common cause with the Institute of Marriage and Family in Canada. The universalists, spearheaded by Dr. Pascal, hit a brick wall in the form of Don Drummond whose 2012 Austerity Report dismissed full-day kindergarten as an unaffordable social program.  In addition, family values advocates have found the weak spot in the Ontario plan – the by-passing of the family in the continuum of early child care. In many ways, there is much more to be learned from Ontario than from Quebec and PEI on the matter of achieving better early childhood education.

Where might Canadian education policy makers look for models of how to improve early childhood education in Canada?  Why are the Quebec and Ontario models no longer seen as viable, affordable policy options?  Do provinces like Nova Scotia have more to learn from Ontario and Finland than from PEI?  Where do parents and families fit in the proposed childcare models? In simplest terms, who is framing the national early learning debate, and for what real purpose?

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A recent Ontario study of some 700 children attending the new Full-Day, Two-Year Kindergarten program claimed that the first cohort was better prepared to enter Grade 1, showing  strong language development, improved communications skills, and better social skills.   That report was welcome news for an Ontario Liberal Government, now headed by Kathleen Wynne, that has staked its reputation on a $1.5 billion program that critics characterize as an expensive form of government controlled day care.  If the gains are real, then the key questions become – do the gains justify the enormous costs and will the head start last?

KindergartenKidsBritish Columbia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec also offer all-day Kindergarten,  but Alberta has delayed its planned implementation because of financial pressures.  In Nova Scotia, the Darrell Dexter NDP Government  has followed a curious, meandering course.  On August 22, 2013, on the eve of a provincial election, Minister of Education Ramona Jennex  announced the plan to open  four little bundles of joy – in the form of spanking new Early Years Centres  for young children in elementary schools scattered across the province.  Initial indications are that universal early learning in Nova Scotia, if it materializes, will most likely be implemented piecemeal, in stages.

Early learning advocates, inspired by the late Dr. Fraser Mustard and his Council on Early Child Development, have long identified Nova Scotia as a laggard among the Canadian provinces.  In November 2011, Dexter and his cabinet were stung by the CECD’s Early Years Study 3 ranking Quebec and P.E.I. as tops and giving Nova Scotia low marks (five out of 15 points) for its current patchwork of programs. Since then pressure has mounted on the NDP government to embrace universal, publicly-funded ECD starting at age two in Nova Scotia.

Universal, publicly funded programs like that in Quebec, where parents pay $7.00 per day per child, have proven to be enormously expensive.  Former Liberal cabinet minister Ken Dryden made an initial effort, but it stalled in 2006 at the federal level and the campaign was, until 2010, sputtering in both Ontario and Nova Scotia.

With the passing of its legendary champion Dr. Mustard, philanthropist Margaret Norrie McCain started carrying the torch for universal, state-funded early learning programs, utilizing the considerable influence of the Margaret and Wallace Family Foundation.

Eighteen months ago, with Ontario’s Liberal government threatening to scale back on its $1.5 billion full day junior and senior kindergarten (FDK) spending, McCain and the universalists began focusing on Nova Scotia. On February 9, 2012, she secured a private audience with Dexter. That’s what finally swayed the cautious-by-nature Premier.  

One Thursday in late May 2012, Dexter visited a Halifax family resource centre and—without any warning—announced that Nova Scotia was embarking on Early Years programs in a big way. He unveiled a discussion paper, Giving Children the Best Start, and local media scrambled to report that a previously unannounced advisory committee would be producing a go ahead plan within a month’s time.

The policy paper recycled CECD research and claimed that one out of every four Canadian children “arriving at school with vulnerabilities” was “more likely to fail” out of school with limited life outcomes. Not surprisingly, it strongly endorsed a universal, school-based, state-funded early childhood education program for children as young as two years.

When Dexter and Jennex welcomed the report, it looked like the NDP government was preparing to buck the national trend to austerity by embarking on a costly public spending program.  In July of 2013, the McCain Foundation greased the wheels by investing $500,000, at $100,000 a year, to kick-start the program and fund Early Years Centres.

AffordableEarlyLearningThe McCain campaign for universal pre-school education is not about winning widespread support from daycare operators, parents or families. In early February 2012, Kerry McCuaig, a Toronto-based CECD research fellow, let the cat out of the bag. “It’s political leadership that matters,” she told a Halifax Public Forum, and the Ontario FDK initiative showed that there is “no real need to seek a public consensus.” What about the existing private and non-profit day cares spread across the province?   “There’s a dog’s breakfast of programs out there, “ McCuaig stated. “ Let’s reorganize it. It costs us nothing to do so.”

Nova Scotia’s bold plan for universal Early Childhood Development will, it is now clear, be entering the province through the back door.  That way the government can side-step and delay the whole thorny issue of accommodating the 220 existing private day cares and 160 non-profit day cares currently operating here in the province.

Going to the top is the preferred mode of operations for those promoting single platform publicly-funded programs for every child. The lighthouse universal ECD program, after all, was initiated by the late Dr. Mustard and fully implemented in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.  Top down leadership worked in Quebec, Ontario and P.E.I.  Here in Nova Scotia it has – so far– produced a typical ad hoc, staged implementation policy response.

How beneficial is universal, government-run Early Learning?  Should such universal programs begin as early as age 2?  Are such universal programs affordable for governments facing long-term financial challenges? What’s the impact of introducing such programs on families, as well as private and coop (not-for-profit day) cares?  What is gained – and lost- in implementing a single platform system? 

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Since the advent of the iPad in April 2010, younger and younger children have been drawn to the bigger and brighter version of the iPhone.  In many North American family homes that new piece of mobile digital technology instantly became part of the family and, in some cases, was mixed-in with the other children’s toys.  Toddlers were fascinated by the iPad and its magical touchscreen technology. Swiping a live screen produced an immediate electronic response that made shaking a rattle or knocking over a pile of blocks seem pretty tame.  It quickly became, what American children’s media expert Warren Buckleitner has described as “a rattle on steroids.”

ToddlersiPadsToday parenting and educating young children tends to involve some form of interaction with digital technology. Gone are the days when homes only had one television, reserved for the parents or rationed with scheduled viewing times.  Now smartphones and iPads can be found on most tables and kitchen counters within easy reach of those little arms and impossible for very active toddlers to resist.  Thousands of kids’ apps have flooded onto the market. Awash in digital devices, childhood is undergoing a major transformation right before our eyes.

Like every other new medium since the dawn of the TV age, the touchscreen device has been roundly condemned by many parents and a host of early learning specialists. One of the earliest critics of the proliferation of computer screen technology was Dr. Jane M. Healy, author of the 1990 best seller Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It.  She is famous for coining the term “zombie effect” and for raising serious concerns about exposure to television and later to computers in the early years of education.  The much revered TV show “Sesame Street” attracted her critical eye, and she took a dim view of the program because it encouraged “a short attention span” and “failed to address the real educational needs of preschoolers.”  Her 1999 book Failure to Connect extended her critique and raised alarm bells about the dangers of exposing young children to computers.

Early digital technology skeptics like Healy were gradually overtaken by the digital revolution.  Back in 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics still discouraged television viewing by children under 2 years of age.  Childrens’ doctors strongly advised that time was far better spent  in “direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers.”  Pediatricians continued to urge caution, but by 2006 some 90 per cent of parents reported that their children younger than 2 consumed some form of electronic media.  That was before the spread of “iPad” app pacifiers and even iPad toys for toddlers.

Technology popularizer Marc Prensky, the IT zealot who coined the term “digital natives,” has encouraged young children to experiment freely with iPads and other mobile devices.  “The war is over. The natives won” says Prensky in explaining why he lets his own 7-year-old son watch unlimited amounts of TV shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and play to his heart’s content with iPads and every other conceivable form of media.  More common is the approach taken by Sandra Calvert of the Georgetown University Children’s Media Centre who allows young children to experiment, but tries to guide them “to make best use of it.”

More than two decades after the appearance of Endangered Minds, Jane M. Healy, has slightly adjusted her thinking and now advises caution and using digital technology in moderation. “Meaningful learning — the kind that will equip our children and our society for the uncertain challenges of the future , ” Healy writes, ” occurs at the intersection of developmental readiness, curiosity, and significant subject matter. Yet many of today’s youngsters, at all socioeconomic levels, are blocked from this goal by detours erected in our culture, schools, and homes.”  Schools of the present and future, she now recognizes, need to come to terms with the reality of IT and close the gap between traditional teaching and personal digital learning.  “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.”   That sounds like promoting a convergence of old ways with new the digital technology world.

Children are becoming “digital natives” at younger and younger ages.  What’s the impact of increasing exposure to touchscreen technology on the brain development and behaviour of the tiny tots?   How wise is IT guru Marc Prensky in allowing his young son to play with technology at any time with few if any limits?  Why has Dr. Jane Healy changed her position on the dangers of early exposure to TV and digital technology?  Is moderation and responsible use still possible in our touchscreen mad world?

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