A new report by TD Economics advocates extensive investment in early childhood education once the economic situation improves. Issued on Nov. 27, “Early Childhood Education has Widespread and Long Lasting Benefits,” written by chief economist Craig Alexander and economist Dina Ignjatovic, concludes that “with an unquestionable number of positive effects, it is evident that more focus should be put on investing in, and improving, the early learning system.”
The authors write that early learning plays a crucial role in later development. Hence, early childhood education is advantageous to – and the authors say “literature is overwhelmingly consistent” in making this point – language, cognitive, and social skills. At the same time, parents have more time for work and professional development, thus obtaining a higher income which will better the lives of children, as well as encourage more loving parenting, the authors claim. According to the report, kids with access to childcare will be better educated and thus be more involved in the work force while earning more money and not posing as much of a healthcare and social cost to society.
The authors outline the child care situation across Canada. Quebec, which has the most comprehensive system, has experienced positive societal effects, the report states, such as having the highest female workforce participation in Canada, student standardized test scores above the national average, and a 50 per cent decrease in poverty.
The TD Economics report says that, “at 0.25 per cent of GDP, Canada ranks last among comparable European and Anglo-speaking countries” and is 17 per cent below the OECD average when it comes to family support. To make up for this shortfall, spending should rise by $3-4 billion, it suggests: “Once government balance sheets are back in order, they should consider placing investment in early learning as a high priority.”
An editorial in the Ottawa Citizen sides with the report. Citing the Ontario Liberal government’s $1.5 billion spending on full-day kindergarten, the paper states that the next government “should consider the TD report and other evidence before scaling back the full-kindergarten system,” though a slowdown may be in order. Nationally, “a conversation should get underway about what Canada’s failure to seriously address this issue is costing the country.”
Alexander and Ignjatovic, however, neglect or trivialize studies showing opposite conclusions. A New York Times article by David Leonhardt in 2006 reported on the social costs of Quebec’s universal daycare system, citing a study by Michael Baker, Kevin Milligan, and Jonathan Gruber that compared outcomes in Quebec with the rest of Canada. Quebec children showed increased anxiety and aggression. They also learned how to count to three, use the washroom, and climb the stairs at later ages. Parents were more depressed and unhappy with their marriages. Moreover, Quebec had atypically high teacher-child ratios which are costly, and its program discriminated against families who only wanted part-time daycare. “It’s been in place since 1997 now and I don’t see evidence of a huge economic return,” said Milligan, in an interview with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
The deterioration of behaviour and social skills among children subjected to childcare is acknowledged across the board. The TD report, though, wrote that these studies are “few” in number and should not be taken too seriously because they “noted that the quality of child care mattered, and that the findings may have been influenced by external factors.” Yet, the TD authors do not admit that state-funded daycare (as in Quebec’s situation) tends to be inflexible and mediocre.
Nevertheless, a 2003 report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development states that “the more time children spent in any of a variety of nonmaternal care arragements across the first 4.5 years of life, the more externalizing problems and conflict with adults they manifested at 54 months of age and in kindergarten.” A study from researchers at Berkeley and Stanford Universities showed that the modest gains that middle and upper class children gained in cognitive skills were offset by behavioural issues, including aggression as well as suppression of self-control, interpersonal skills, and motivation upon entry to kindergarten. The problems increase as more time is spent in childcare. A 2012 open letter by Andrea Mrozek of the IMFC to Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten makes reference to 10 different studies that show negative behavioural impact.
Some studies that show positive impacts of childcare are carried out using high-quality interventions towards high-risk children, who would respond more than the middle or upper class. For instance, the Perry Preschool Project, which estimates $17 saved in welfare, health, and justice for every $1 spent, involved only 58 children from high crime neighbourhoods with low IQs, but would be hard to replicate. “Mothers participated in the program and teachers did home visits. Finally, the children only spent 2.5 hours per day in a classroom setting and the child to teacher ratio was five or six to one,” wrote Mrozek. But all of these issues did not seem to be of much concern to the authors writing the TD report.