Who benefits from Early Childhood Education?



August 2, 2010

By Neil Dykstra. First published in Reformed Perspective magazine, June 2010:

The provincial governments of Ontario and British Columbia have begun to convert their half-day kindergarten programs to all-day. The stated intention in both provinces is to extend all-day kindergarten further into the preschool years as funding allows. This means that children as young as two may be spending five full days a week in a learning institution in the near future. There is not much opposition to this expansion of the education system from mainstream Canadians. They have been won over by two things:

– the prospect of “free” childcare
– the sheer weight of scientific references that government policy papers have dredged up to lend credence to the effectiveness of early education.

In a phrase reminiscent of an Al Gore ultimatum, researchers have stated that, “the overarching question of whether we can intervene successfully in young children’s lives has been answered in the affirmative and should be put to rest.” Such a statement is entirely at odds with the true process of scientific inquiry, which requires healthy skepticism to avoid pitfalls such as groupthink. This kind of categorical phrasing is your first indication that the author is writing or speaking from a position of rhetoric and advocacy, and not fact.

But what are the facts on early childhood education? It is difficult to parse them into a few hundred words, and all but impossible to interpret any data from the social sciences without inserting one’s personal bias. Nevertheless, I’ll try to answer a few frequently-asked questions about the research.

Can children benefit from early childhood education?

The research is quite clear that some children receive some benefits. The children that benefit the most are those who are lacking the most vital component to their development to begin with – a proper home learning environment. Trends towards a greater benefit for children in poor and single-parent families are mostly due to the fact that such households have a higher incidence of poor home learning environments.

For children with adequate opportunities to learn in the home, preschool and all-day kindergarten can provide a small “head-start” for learning in the first grade. However, this advantage provides no benefit over the long-term. The inescapable equality-of-outcome model in grade school ensures that those without pre-school catch up quickly to their pre-schooled peers by the end of the third grade.

With respect to the agenda of the Ontario and BC governments to expand kindergarten to all-day, the evidence shows that there is of no discernible benefit in all-day instruction. In Europe, the same benefits are found in children attending both the half-day and all-day programs.

Can children be harmed by early childhood education?

This is the question that is rarely asked by the researchers. Directly, there aren’t many adverse effects. A high incidence of out-of-home care or instruction has been linked to behavioral problems in children later in their school years, predominantly in boys. It has also been found that the maternal bond is adversely affected by over-reliance on institutionalized care.

But there are indirect effects on children that are rarely studied. An increase in out-of-home instruction in the early years adversely affects a parent’s own role as the primary educator. If that role deteriorates, the home learning environment suffers along with it. If today’s parents are conditioned by early childhood education to believe that they are suboptimal instructors, they will be less inclined to participate in the education of their children at all levels. And when their children grow up, they often inherit the roles of their parents, further compromising the learning environment for the next generation.

So why then are governments moving towards early childhood education?

In a recent, failed attempt to expand sex education in Ontario’s schools, Premier Dalton McGuinty stated that such a program must be in schools so that government has some control over what is being taught about morally sensitive topics. Such a statement belies one of the real reasons for early childhood education – control of the message. As an example, according to Quebec’s policy against homophobia, the entire school system is a means to “normalize alternative sexual lifestyles” in all children. The same province’s school system is also notorious for compulsory high school courses that require students to strongly question their own religion.

Governments are also advancing early childhood education in order to socialize culturally diverse children. A Quebec minister has stated openly that the primary mission of the province’s early childhood education system is to integrate children, and their parents, into Quebec culture. Society would benefit, they believe, if the school system could make the language, culture, and even religion the same in all children.

Economics is another reason that governments favor a universal system. Economic organizations such as the OECD state that such a program is a net positive result for a nation’s GDP, since more mothers will be in the workforce. In addition, an entire new class of professionals – early childhood educators – would be required for the system to work. It has been argued that public money invested in universal ECE programs reaps an impressive return on investment, but this isn’t supported by any empirical evidence.

Who else is pushing for early childhood education?

The early years are very important for child development. Among other things, a strong foundation for religion, morality, and worldview is established prior to compulsory schooling. Agents of social change have often expressed their frustration when using the school system to modify the values of the students, often finding that it’s too late to effectively change the children’s worldview by the time they get to grade school. It’s no surprise, then, that the same organizations that lobby to influence the social instruction in schools are also very supportive of universal early childhood education.

Other interest groups stand to directly benefit from another expensive social program. Unions would receive more members, universities would have more enrolment, and bureaucrats would have more to control.

All these are only a few of the reasons to oppose the expansion of publicly funded early childhood education among various provincial governments.

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