The whole idea behind Head Start is to give children from lower socioeconomic families the benefits that middle and upper income families have when it comes to a rich educational environment. While critics of Head Start agree that the program does appear to help lower-income students in their early years, gains from Head Start are wiped out as these same children advance in age. Supporters of Head Start argue that early childhood gains would continue if these lower-income children were given the same benefits as they advance in age. In other words, lower-income students could benefit from intense educational support at all levels.
Middle class families don’t need much convincing to get their children into early childhood education. One only has to look at Milwaukee’s Montessori programs to find parents who push to have their children placed in K3 programs.
In the end, we have a patchwork of early childhood programs. Head Start is for the poor. K3 programs are for those who know how to work the system. Most Milwaukee elementary schools have K4 programs. But there isn’t any consistent, comprehensive early childhood program in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, and certainly not in the United States as a whole.
However, our neighbor to the north, Canada, is attempting just such a universal early childhood system. This is, after all, Canada, home of a single-payer healthcare system, home of big government, not the free-market, free-for-all system found in the United States.
In his report to the Premier of Ontario, Charles E. Pascal outlined what the province needs to do in early education. With Our Best Future in Mind states that the very patchwork system that existed in Ontario was a problem. Daycare providers had no coordinated efforts with the existing school system. After school programs did no better. What was needed was a coordinated approach, and the best system to provide that approach was the public school system. In 2009, Ontario launched its universal K4 and K5 early education program.
So how is Ontario doing with its early childhood program?
First of all, Ontario is not a unique province in starting early education programs. It is behind several other provinces, most notably Quebec, in offering such services. But Ontario has a lot of similarities to the Midwest United States with a mixture of urban and rural communities.
It is difficult to draw too many conclusions after only three years of implementation, but anecdotal information is that first grade teachers are beginning to see students who are farther ahead academically than they were a few years ago. Ontario is beginning to have discussions about revamping its first grade curriculum to take advantage of this advanced student base. It is still too early to know the final outcome early education will have on these children down the road.
While the United States has focused Head Start on the economically disadvantaged, Canada is actually picking up a higher percentage of poor children through universal early education. Today 80 percent of the children in Ontario are in K4 and K5 programs. Other provinces are doing just as well, some even better.
Evidence shows an unexpected economic advantage to the provinces allowing more parents to enter the workforce rather than staying home with their children increasing tax revenues above the cost of the early childhood programs. There are also reports of decreased need for special education services as early childhood programs also means early interventions.
Our neighbors to the north are worth watching.