The following article by Broadbent Fellow Charles Pascal originally appeared in today's Toronto Star. It is reprinted here with his permission.
Those of us who held the pen a few years back to capture the best global research and practice available regarding the positive impact full-day kindergarten would have on 4- and 5-year-olds, titled our report, “With Our Best Future in Mind.” Based on the research released a few days ago, our best future is arriving ahead of schedule.
Thousands of parents, practitioners, experts and policy people from Ontario and beyond contributed to the report tabled four years ago. Even the most optimistic among us could not have anticipated the remarkable McMaster and Queen’s universities’ research released a few days ago.
Before full-day kindergarten was on offer, 27 per cent of Ontario children entering Grade 1 were vulnerable, at risk at failing before their first day in school begins. Research also shows that too many of these children never catch up. The families whose children are dealing with language, social competence or emotional maturity issues know the human costs of these consequences. And the fiscal and economic consequences of inattention to these children who are left behind are a fiscal and economic catastrophe.
That is why these research results are off-the-charts encouraging. When looking at the evidence, 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. Equally remarkable, after two years of FDK, risk in the areas of social competence and communication skills has been reduced by half.
These results are especially surprising given the complexity of implementing a brand new program in such a short time — from the tabling of our report in the early summer of 2009 to the onset of implementation in September 2010.
Naturally, there have been some bumps along this short road to date. Our report recommended that child-care reforms begin in tandem with the introduction of full-day learning. Our current non-system of child care remains too painful for too many families. Until we build a high-quality, affordable and publicly managed system of child care, ridding the province of the often horrific consequences of unregulated child care will remain a challenge.
Our Best Future was also clear about the need for a seamless extended day with school boards providing a consistent high-quality program provided by a single team of early learning educators. Short-sighted school boards and high-powered lobbying allows boards to use third party operators to continue the before and after child care. We wanted to ensure that the benefits of FDK weren’t undone by the fragmented offerings of third parties.
But the future is clearer and better in places like Waterloo where the public school board provides the seamless approach and has created more than 2,700 child-care spaces. This has eliminated the ridiculously long waits for care that families elsewhere confront. And there are child-care operators around Ontario who choose to alter their business models to adapt and thrive rather than holding onto the status quo. The results of this new research regarding the benefits of FDK are worthy of some domestic cork-popping and global attention.
Naturally, there will be naysayers.
To those who say “my kids aren’t ready,” who isn’t ready for a play-based program with nutrition and rest breaks as necessary? To date, 96 per cent of kids who have access to FDK are participating in this voluntary program.
To those who say “this is a huge amount to spend,” the economic evidence notes that the return on investment will be huge and the program is already paying back the initial investment.
To those who use irrelevant American research based on a country that does not have FDK for 4- and 5-year-olds or a consistent, high-quality curriculum, I say do some real research.
And to those who say we should only target poor children, it’s important to understand that 60 per cent of the 27 per cent of kids who were vulnerable going into Grade 1 at the beginning of implementation do not come from low-income homes. A universal approach with special initiatives for low-income families is the winning combination.
All governments are good at making policy. Some are even good at making good policy. But taking ideas off the page of a report and putting them in motion on the ground is rarely a pretty sight. In this case, notwithstanding those implementation bumps, there is so much to celebrate as more and more kids reap the benefits of improved health, communication and social skills that not only better prepare them for formal school but for life.