November 13, 2013
Public Policy Forum, Harris Centre, St. John’s Newfoundland
Successful Kids; Successful Country - Why Smart Public Policy Needs to Include Early Childhood Education
Margaret McCain Remarks:
I would like to thank the Public Policy Forum and the Harris Centre for inviting me to speak with you this evening. I would also like to acknowledge the work of the Pratt Foundation for its efforts in raising the profile of early human development and its influence on life long learning, health and behavior.
The latest edition of the Early Years Study is the result of a collaborative effort between eight foundations from across Canada, including the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation and the Pratt Foundation. We came together around a cause that is fundamentally progressive -- a game changer – to make early education available to all children from age 2. Early education for all would be publicly-funded, available, top-quality and voluntary. Parents would decide if, and how often, their children attend.
Early Years Study 3 builds on two others I co-chaired with the late Dr. Fraser Mustard. The first revealed how experiences in early childhood - from conception on - shape the architecture and function of the brain, with lifelong consequences for the individual and for society.
It changed perceptions of how the first years of human development were viewed and recruited new advocates from health, finance and science.
In Early Years Study 2 we argued for a comprehensive policy framework to improve population health outcomes.
In Early Years Study 3, we update the social, economic and scientific rationale for investing in early childhood education. This edition introduces the Early Childhood Education Report, a tool for monitoring progress in the funding, policy, quality and access to early education.
The evidence is now overwhelming. Good education, begun early, can improve every child’s chance of success. It is fair. It works. It is affordable. It enjoys widespread popularity -- and in many parts of Canada we are already on our way to making it a reality.
Why early childhood education? Canadian social policy was designed in the post war era. Its basic structure remains unchanged; unlike the environments it must respond to. Three major socio-economic upheavals confront policy makers.
First is the changing job market: Cloud Computing Service, Sustainability expert, App developer – these are among the dozens of job titles that didn’t exist 10 years ago. A web search finds 9,219 job offers for Experience Designers. Not surprisingly there are Social Media Managers – a job that will disappear when Twitter is replaced by the next networking evolution. There are 220 new green collar jobs that can be found in the resource, transport, manufacturing, construction and agricultural sectors. OECD governments – the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- have committed $500-billion to date to green growth.
Not all the new jobs are high tech. Elder care managers are helping aging boomers and their families deal with end of life arrangements. Event planners are an expanding occupation. Zumba instructors number in the thousands worldwide.
There isn’t a post-secondary institution anywhere that has kept pace with these developments. These changes provide new challenges and opportunities for job seekers; but employers also need to adapt if they want to recruit and retain the best workforce. Those with the skills for in-demand jobs are looking for dynamic, socially-relevant employment. Surveys reveal more than 70% of Canadian employees say they want to work for companies that commit to social, environmental and community concerns.
Second - A workforce on the move: Last year over 100-million people around the globe moved from rural to urban environments. Across Atlantic Canada workers, particularly young workers, are opting for urban settings. Meanwhile, 1.1 million Canadians live and work abroad. While 500,000 others immigrate to Canada every year seeking either permanent or temporary employment, mainly in urban centres. This migration breaks traditional social networks, strains aging urban infrastructures and puts pressure on housing and living costs.
Third - changing families: Families come in many wonderful forms. Regardless of its configuration maintaining a family often requires more than one working adult. Canadian women have a high level of participation in paid work, about 10 points higher than their counterparts in Europe.
Mothers in the workforce are the new norm. In 2012, the employment rate for women with children under six years old reached 70% - a 150% increase over the past two decades. The over-all employment rate for women with children now equals those without children. This figure is little lower for Newfoundland where 58% of mothers with young children are in the labourforce.
As this trend reflects progress towards equality of opportunity for women, it is cause for celebration. But as it represents mounting economic pressures, it is cause for concern.
The changing job and migratory landscape has made the income of mothers essential to the financial well-being of families. The rate of poverty in one-income households is 21 percent, but drops to 4 percent for two income households.
The reality is Canada couldn’t function without mothers’ employment. A study by the Vanier Institute estimates $35-billion in tax revenues would disappear annually if mothers stayed home.
These developments challenge us all; but none are more vulnerable than small children. Today's rising generation is the first to spend a large part of early childhood outside the family home. At the same time, neuroscientific research is demonstrating that loving, stable, secure, and stimulating relationships in the earliest years of life are critical for every aspect of a child’s development.
In most OECD countries and parts of Canada, public policy is responding with enhanced supports, including secured work leaves for new parents, income supports and guaranteed access to early childhood education and care.
They are motivated by two realities:
• Women are refusing to fill both the labour force and the bassinette.
• And the need for a knowledgeable, nimble workforce. This is where early education reigns. Early education helps children learn how to learn. Knowing how to learn is the new essential.
It is telling that the 30-something founders of Google credit preschool and not their Stanford computer science degrees with their success. The self-directed learning, tinkering, and discovery, self-motivation and questioning, “helped us to do things a little bit differently,” relates Google co-founder Larry Page.
Public policy has not kept pace with the changing Canadian family. Today’s family is smaller and more diverse, and the parents are older. A first-time mother is now likely to be 30 and the average family has only one child. In NL the average age of a first time mom is a bit younger – 28. Although parents are older and families are smaller; they are also poorer. Just having a child puts a family at risk of poverty.
We compared some of the Nordic countries with Canada, the UK and the United States. A robust policy package keeps family poverty low in the Nordic countries. Not so in Canada, where just having a child puts the family at risk. Lone parent status has no effect in the Nordic countries, but is a major risk factor for poverty in the Anglo-America states. But senior poverty is different Canada is the world leader in eliminating poverty among seniors. Focused efforts by governments at all levels have been highly successful. A similar policy approach is needed to support the well-being of families with children.
Extensive research from many perspectives concurs that early human development is an intricate dance between nature and nurture, genes and the environment. Genes listen to the environment and the environment adapts the genetic blueprint. This is the important epigenetic story.
In early life, nurturing, stimulation and nutrition interact with genetic predispositions to sculpt the architecture of the brain and its neural pathways, influencing learning, behavior, and physical and mental health for life.
The young child’s brain is acutely vulnerable to its environment. If the early experiences are fear and stress, especially if these are overwhelming and occur repeatedly, then these neurochemical responses become the primary architects of the brain. Trauma scrambles the neurotransmitter signals that play key roles in telling growing neurons where to go and what to connect to. Children exposed to chronic and unpredictable stress—including harsh and chaotic parenting, witnessing the abuse of other family members or the constant fighting between parents—will suffer deficits in their ability to learn. IQ will be lower—in itself another risk factor for conduct problems and mental illness.
In 2008 the Canadian Council on Learning did an analysis—unfortunately this organization no longer exists, leaving a great gap in the public discourse. The Council pegged the annual public cost of one high school dropout at $7,500 annually. This figure is derived from a combination of lost tax revenue and increased spending on unemployment insurance and social assistance, in addition to greater costs to the criminal justice system. The price paid by the individual is even higher, totaling $11,500 in diminished health and income.
Each cohort of early school leavers costs Canada $2.62-billion every year. Over the lifetime of each cohort, the cost is $18-billion.
The link between early life experiences and educational and life success have been documented by the US National Scientific Council. Its recent report concludes: All aspects of adult human capital, from workforce skills to cooperative and lawful behavior, build on capacities that are developed during early childhood.”
Many factors influence outcomes for children. The child’s health is primary; followed by the home environment, including the socioeconomic status of the family, the educational attainment of the parents and the family’s income. Preschool and primary school are important outside influencers.
It is difficult to intervene to influence family dynamics. Early education however has a proven track record in reducing vulnerabilities in children and breaking intergenerational cycles of illiteracy and poverty.
When we say “getting under the skin to change trajectories,” results from a large, ongoing study in the UK and Northern Ireland provide a good illustration. Edward Melhuish and his team studied changes in children’s numeracy knowledge from age three through to grade six. Some children started out poorly and continued to perform below expectations. Others started out well and continued to do so. Still others had a good start but their performance declined. Others were below expectations when first assessed but showed marked improvement.
What do you notice about the movement in this graph? Yes, it all takes place before children reach formal schooling.
We thought Dr. Melhuish’s work so important that we brought him to Canada to meet with officials in Ontario and the Maritimes. He will be in Newfoundland in the New Year. I hope you take the opportunity to hear more about his work.
To influence educational achievement, both the quality of early education and the amount of time children attend preschool are important. The UK study found developmental benefits even for children who had attended lower quality programs. This is the advantage children derive just from being around other children. But the children who profited most, attended good programs for two or more years – so duration is also a factor. Fifteen hours a week appears to be the tipping point.
Based on the research it would appear that provinces providing full day kindergarten are ahead of those offering part-time. Those offering programming for two or three years before grade one are ahead of those offering one year. The OECD’s target is three years of preschool education.
Research tells us that emotional and cognitive self-regulation has the same neural roots. Self-regulation reflects the state of our limbic system and its ability to attend to tasks, to focus—to learn.
Self-regulation may be far more important than IQ in determining not only what kind of grades a child earns, but how often the she goes to class, how much time she spends on homework, how vulnerable she is to risky behavior; even things as simple as how much time she spends watching TV or playing video games. Self-regulation is often misinterpreted as behaviour management – it is not about regulating the child – it is about the child’s ability to regulate her own responses.
While all early education programs appear to provide a social boost, good early education has enduring effects on self-regulation.
This is supported by research out of the University of British Columbia linking vulnerability in kindergarten with poorer performance on provincial testing in grades 4 and 7. Manitoba research links vulnerability in kindergarten with poor academic results in grades 10 and 12 -- an indication of the lasting effects of early childhood experiences.
If there is a single critical component of a quality early education programs, it rests in the relationship
between the child and the educator. Research identifies their critical skills:
• The quality of their verbal interactions with children
• Knowledge and understanding of curriculum
• Knowledge of how young children learn
• Their skill in helping children resolve conflicts
• And, their ability to help parents support children’s learning at home
Vocabulary skills in preschool are closely related to later academic competency. Language is a telling indicator since it provides the foundation for conceptual thinking. As with other competencies, children from low-income families are more likely to experience language delays, but income is not determinist. Most children from low-income families are doing just fine and many are excelling. Good parenting and good preschool can inoculate children from the effects of poverty. But it is not only children from low-income families who are having problems. Note that the vulnerability gap between children from moderate and affluent families is just as large as the gap between middle class and poor families.
Because children from low-income families are more likely to experience difficulties, it is often assumed that scarce resources should be directed to them. But although the percentage of children with delayed vocabulary is indeed more prevalent in low-income families, poor children form a relatively small group in the overall number of children having difficulty.
Based on the findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Children and Youth we see that more than twice as many children who do not live in low-income families have language delays. This would indicate that changing outcomes at a population level requires a universal approach to early education.
Low literacy levels create problems well beyond the classroom. Literacy skills are essential to participation in a democratic, pluralistic society. It is difficult for people to understand the world around them or to participate in decision-making without the skills necessary to understand complex issues. Analyses of the International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in partnership with the OECD, suggest that the higher the literacy level, the more likely it is that a respondent will engage in various forms of civic activities.
Low literacy levels are dangerous, particularly during times of social and economic instability. Illiteracy can leave people vulnerable to the simplistic solutions offer by extremist groups.
Another advantage of early education is its high economic return. It is a job creator in its own right, while it supports parents to work. It provides immediate-to-long term social and health savings; as it prepares the next generation of workers.
We see many signs for the federal government’s Economic Action Plan. More of them should be on schools. Robert Fairholm’s work reveals child care and education as the biggest job creators, almost twice as effective as stimulus spending on construction. The tax revenue generated from public spending on early education sends back about 90 cents in taxes to federal and provincial governments for every dollar invested.
But the big economic story is from Quebec and its real life experiment in providing accessible early education and care. Some policy makers have been scared off early education, pointing to Quebec as an example of a program out of control. But a recent study by a group of economists from the University of Sherbrooke tells a different story:
• Between 2000 and 2008, 70,000 more Quebec mothers entered the workforce because of low cost child care. These are mothers who would have been unable to work without this support.
• Quebec mothers pay $1.5-billion in taxes
• And draw $340-million less in social transfers
• Boosting Quebec’s GDP by $5-billion
Quebec mothers have:
• Moved Quebec from the bottom to the top in female labour force participation in Canada
• Halved child poverty rates in their province
• Halved the number of lone-parent families on social assistance
• Boosted fertility - More Quebec moms are having their second, third and more children
• Meanwhile, vulnerability in children entering school has been reduced
When early education is organized so that it also supports parents’ labour force participation, it more than pays for itself. The economists found that:
For every dollar Quebec spends on early education and care, it collects $1.05 in increased taxes and reduced family payments, while the federal government gets 44 cents (for doing nothing).
This is a highly important study. These are real numbers, based on real experiences, not a simulated economic model.
In much of Canada the policy framework for early childhood is still very fragmented. At both federal and provincial levels several departments claim responsibility for some aspects of early childhood programming but rarely is there a lead ministry. This schism is replicated at the local level. Split governance - legislation, funding, and delivery structures – makes it challenging to deliver effective programs.
While there are great organizations doing great things for kids, they accommodate only a few fortunate children. Parents are left to the service chaos. Navigating the quagmire is difficult for families with resources, and almost impossible for disadvantaged families.
A comprehensive, multi-year review of 20 early childhood services systems conducted by the OECD concludes that jurisdictions which split oversight for their preschool, child care and education services have weaker services – less access, poorer quality, less accountability.
Research in Canada and abroad, including the 25 year longitudinal study - Better Beginnings/Better Futures; Toronto First Duty; findings from the Atlantic Early Childhood Development Centres; Sure Start in the UK and Australia’s Doveton example, tells us that integrated early childhood services, delivered from the school’s platform are more effective, particularly when it comes to reaching hard to serve families.
Policy makers are using this research to redesign their ECE delivery systems. I am not suggesting that there is only one route to a comprehensive system. The two Canadian leaders, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, reached their destinations using very different methods.
Early education advocates can be rightly suspicious of schools for their rigidity and focus on a few narrow outcomes. However children will spend the majority of their childhood in school and parents want their children to succeed. Schools can be places where children are both nurtured and educated.
Excellent community based programs do exist, but as excellent as they are, these programs are few, and the numbers of families they serve is small.
In asking education to take the lead we are not denigrating the contributions of the family support or child care sectors to children and families. Rather, we start from the considerable international evidence in choosing education as the base upon which to grow an early childhood system. Education is unambiguous. It is about children—all children. From this universal and well-established platform, we can develop a modern understanding that learning begins at birth, continues throughout life and involves the whole family, the whole community.
With education there is no need to reinvent the wheel— schools are in every neighbourhood -- not just some. And education already comes with a strong infrastructure -- financing, training, curriculum, data collection, evaluation and research.
Expanding education’s mandate to include young children isn’t about pushing academic demands down and abandoning the care and nurturance which is the domain of early childhood education; rather it draws on research showing that incorporating early childhood education into schools can have a transformative impact, turning them into vibrant family centres that welcome children and families before, during and after the school bell rings.
Early education for all is not a utopian fantasy, particularly if it built on the existing asset we have in public education. With less effort than starting a whole new social program from scratch, education can expand to bridge the gap between parental leave and formal schooling. By including the option of extended-day, year-round activities, Canada can have its long-demanded early learning and child care program.
Finally a few sources for you to explore further. Thank you.