Hot! Is all-day kindergarten really a leg up?

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary
Published Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012.    Margaret Wente

Everyone loves all-day kindergarten. In Ontario, where it was introduced in 2010, it’s wildly popular with parents. Grade 1 teachers like it because the students arrive better prepared. All-day K is the signature social initiative of Dalton McGuinty, who wants to go down in history as the Education Premier. The only drawback is the cost – $1.5-billion a year by the time it’s fully implemented. Although monster deficits have forced the Education Premier to morph into the Austerity Premier, he promises he won’t put his favourite baby on the chopping block.

According to its advocates, all-day kindergarten is much more than a perk for young families. It offers a crucial leg up for disadvantaged children. For this reason alone, it’s essential to our economic prosperity.

“We can’t afford not to do it,” argues Charles Pascal, the Premier’s early learning adviser. Twenty-eight per cent of kids who enter Grade 1 are “vulnerable,” meaning they arrive with learning, social or behavioural problems. Without an early learning boost, they’ll never catch up. In the long run, Mr. Pascal told CBC Radio, early learning will pay off in better human capital and higher graduation rates. Every 1-per-cent decline in the number of vulnerable kids, he says, will add 1 per cent to GDP. “It’s a no-brainer.”

Actually, it’s a brainer. Here’s why. The world’s biggest early learning program, involving millions of children and billions of dollars of public investment, has now been exhaustively evaluated. The results are unequivocal: It doesn’t work.

The program is Head Start, an iconic preschool program launched in 1965 as part of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Today, it includes nearly a million children. These are the ones who need help the most – the poor and minority kids who are at high risk of dropping out and winding up jobless or in jail. The rationale for the program, which offers not only preschool education but also family support, health and dental services and social and mental health services, is that it saves money in the long run. Since its inception, it has cost more than $100-billion.

In 2002, the U.S. government launched the massive Head Start Impact Study to determine how well the program worked. The final report, released in 2010, was devastating. It found that the modest gains achieved by Head Start students wore off by the end of Grade 1 – they wound up no further ahead than those who weren’t in the program.

You’d think these findings – involving one of the most ambitious social programs in U.S. history –would have been widely publicized. They got almost no coverage at all. Head Start is a classic example of a giant public program that doesn’t produce results but creates so many jobs and has so many defenders that no one can get rid of it.

There are big differences between Head Start and all-day kindergarten in Canada, of course. Head Start is aimed at disadvantaged three- and four-year-olds; kindergarten reaches all four- and five-year-olds. It may be that Canadian teachers are so much better that they can achieve results that have eluded the Americans for decades. Maybe Head Start is just a bad program. Or maybe disadvantaged U.S. children are so much worse off that nothing works.

But what we can conclude, from this and other studies, is that the benefits of early childhood education have been vastly overstated. It’s not a magic bullet. Which isn’t to say that all-day K has no value. It’s fabulous for working parents, and a whole lot cheaper than daycare. Mothers who might otherwise stay home may choose to work, and it creates extra jobs for teachers. But they aren’t the benefits we’ve been sold. And in a world of excruciatingly tough choices, that matters.

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