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  (Curtis Lantinga)

 

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Ontario’s $1.5-billion kindergarten hoax Add to ...

Back in September, when school opened, Ontario’s Liberal government made headlines with a good-news story. Its costly venture into full-day kindergarten was a complete success – the research said so! Kids with two years of full-day kindergarten showed measurably more cognitive and social progress than kids without it. Education Minister Liz Sandals called the results “nothing short of incredible.” Charles Pascal, a leading advocate of full-day kindergarten, said the study proved it’s a “life-changer.”

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Unfortunately, the full research report was not yet available. Something about the i’s being dotted and t’s being crossed.

Now it is available. But you haven’t heard about it, because the results are terrible.

To be sure, there are shreds of good news. Some kids from “high-needs schools” (i.e., lower-income children) did better in a few areas. But kids from “low-needs schools” (i.e., more affluent ones) often did worse. In fact, “on several measures,” the non-full-day kindergarten programs “were associated with more positive outcomes.” Special-education kids also did better in non-full-day-kindergarten programs. For most children, it made no difference one way or another.

Oops.

Why does this matter? It matters because full-day kindergarten is expensive. It will cost Ontario $1.5-billion a year, which is roughly equal to a gas plant and a half, year after year. Along with the Green Energy Program (another monumental waste), it has been the signature initiative of the provincial Liberals. And now that it’s begun, it will never be rolled back, because it will quickly develop its own enthusiastic constituency – especially middle-class parents, who can save thousands of dollars a year in daycare fees.

Full-day kindergarten (which is aimed at four- to six-year-olds) is being rolled out across North America because many policy-makers believe it will shrink the gap between disadvantaged kids and affluent ones. This hope has now assumed the status of a religious belief, despite an increasing body of evidence that it does no such thing.

The researchers behind the Ontario report deserve full credit for their candour. Once you cut through all the edu-speak, they reported what they found. And what they found were problems. To start with, everyone delivers the program in different ways. Evidently, a whole lot of teachers and administrators do not understand what the provincial Education Ministry wants. At the M of E, the flavour of the month is “play-based learning.” But many school districts and teachers are still wedded to the previous flavour of the month, which was “literacy and numeracy instruction.” Confusion reigns, to say nothing of layers and layers and layers of bureaucracy in which the message gets lost or ignored.

To address this problem, the researchers have developed something called the “FDELK Fidelity Index” to gauge whether teachers are delivering the program properly or not. It is so complex that an army of experts would be required to administer it.

There’s worse. Overcrowding is a common problem. Many classrooms have 30 or more students and only two adults – a teacher and an early childhood education instructor. As the researchers put it tactfully, large classes are a challenge to a “positive emotional environment.” As in, cram 30 kids together in a small space all day long, and what you get is temper tantrums, crankiness and general mayhem. Also, the ECEs feel disrespected by the teachers, and the two groups don’t get along.

The impression of general chaos is reinforced by plenty of complaints (not included in the report) from parents and teachers. Here’s what one kindergarten teacher has to say on the website of Maclean’s: “It sounds good in theory, but this is how it is in reality: Class size 28 (small compared to some), one child with autism, four with behavioural issues (one quite severe), and a lot of needy JKs (some three years old) who require a lot of attention and ‘mothering’ – but rarely get what they need due to other issues in the classroom. Really feels like daycare. Little or no support from admin.”

Administrators, meanwhile, are scrambling to steal scarce resources from other areas for this one, not because they want to, but because they’ve been ordered to.

In their report, the researchers also acknowledge that a lot of what they are supposed to measure is quite subjective, that the data are too incomplete to be very reliable, and that firm conclusions about the overall impact of the program are very hard to draw. In other words, the only thing of which we can be really sure – and this is my conclusion, not theirs – is that the extraordinary claims made by the government to justify all-day kindergarten are a monumental hoax.

All is not lost, however. Truly dedicated social engineers do not give up without a fight. If a new program doesn’t work, their answer is to double down. And that is exactly what the authors of this study recommend. What we need are bigger classrooms, smaller classes, and “fidelity of implementation.” We need more consultants, more professional development and more recognition for those cranky ECEs. (Higher pay would help, too.) We need to purchase iPads, software and video so that educators have better ways to record the children’s emotional, social and cognitive progress. We need to expand the extended daycare programs so parents can leave their kids at school all day, all year round, and we should make sure their siblings can use them too.

All these measures would cost way, way more money than the government has to spend. But our children’s future is at stake. If only we do it right, then it will work.

I don’t blame these people. They only want the best for our kids, as do I. But maybe there are better ways to help our kids than spending $1.5-billion every year chasing rainbows.

 

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