Since its release, Charles Pascal's report, With Our Best Future In Mind, has raised considerable controversy: Supporters are hailing the plan to develop an integrated early-learning framework for young children; critics are claiming it is too costly and interventionist.
Taken on face value, the report seems to focus primarily on the role of government in establishing full-day kindergarten, and in developing an early-learning and child-care system for Ontario. We believe, however, that it reflects sounds ideas both about a child's need for both public mechanisms to support early learning, and the central role of the family as the basis for early learning. Early learning is not an either/or - both are necessary. The report recognizes this. It is time the rest of us did, too.
The report's recommendations would involve additional spending. In these economic times, money is scarce, but public spending must reflect our society's priorities. Investments should be made accordingly. In a knowledge-based era, we should be increasing the portion of overall spending that goes to education.
We already know and appreciate the investment value of education, not only to the individual but to society in general: Incomes rise and there is a consequent reduction in a vast array of government support payments over time.
While quality learning can and must therefore take place at all ages, research tells us (as does our experience as parents) that the earliest years are the foundation for life. Investing in early learning should therefore be our educational priority.
Economist James Heckman shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2000 for his demonstration of the life cycle as a dynamic process, with each stage underpinning the next. His work shows that public spending in early childhood provides far greater returns than interventions at any other age. He computes the return on investment in early childhood programs at 8:1, compared to a 3:1 return for primary and secondary education and 1:1 for adult training. He also acknowledges that program benefits are most pronounced for disadvantaged children. His position is supported by University of Toronto economists Gordon Cleveland and Michael Krashinsky, who revealed a 2:1 payback for a universal early-childhood program
ROLE OF PARENTS
Clearly, scrimping on early education would be terribly short-sighted as investments in early learning set the stage for the highest rate of return. Is an early-learning system the silver bullet? No, of course not.
Overlooked by critics of the Pascal report is a recognition of the importance of the home environment and the need for involving parents. The report makes specific recommendations for extending parental leave and providing family and parenting support programming and resources. It is the sort of parental involvement that has been well recognized by the Learning Partnership and the TD Bank, which sponsor Welcome to Kindergarten (WTK), an exemplary literacy and early-learning program servicing 40,000 Ontario children and their families by preparing preschoolers for formal learning. It enhances the ability of parents/guardians to be the child's first teacher, and assists the transition to school by creating a powerful relationship between parents, schools and local community partners. WTK recognizes the impressive returns of early learning and has made a substantial investment in educating our youngest children and their families. It is a valuable model for success.
Although the province has suggested that their early-learning plan would be implemented first in targeted, high-risk communities, it is important not to lose sight of the value of a universal approach to early learning. Studies show that restricting programs to a defined population or neighbourhood misses the majority of children who need support. We have learned from the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth (NLSCY) and the Early Development Instrument (EDI) that, while children showing developmental challenges are more likely to be found in low income and lone-parent families, more than 70 per cent of vulnerable children live in two-parent, non-poor families. It's time to stop the debate and begin to act - now.
We must invest, once and for all, in our youngest children and their families in a co-ordinated, integrated way. For Ontario to reap the highest return on our educational dollars, to help us succeed economically and have a strong social fabric in the future, extraordinary efforts are required to support early learning. At a time of soaring deficits there are, understandably, concerns as to whether the initiative can be afforded. But given the rates of return to investing in early childhood education, the more pertinent question is whether we can afford not to make such an investment.
Veronica Lacey is president and CEO of The Learning Partnership. Don Drummond is the chief economist of TD Bank Financial Group.