Most Canadian jurisdictions have developed curriculum frameworks to support early childhood education.53 They tend to be holistic and child-centred in their approach and constructed around learning and developmental goals. Where available, curriculum use is mandatory in school-operated settings, but it is not always a requirement in licensed child care, as is the case in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and New Brunswick.
In contrast to the early education frameworks, school-operated kindergarten and pre-kindergarten programs follow a more defined, educator-guided curriculum that is organized by broad subject areas, or they may extend the provincial elementary curriculum down into the kindergarten years. They contain specific learning standards or expectations and are divided into subject areas. The learning standards or expectations have a propensity to drive planning, along with the assessment and evaluation of children’s learning experiences.
Transition between any two phases of education poses challenges. Yet the emerging curriculum frameworks designed for programs before children enter the public education system are seldom aligned to kindergarten or primary school curriculum. One exception is Ontario’s Early Learning for Every Child Today (ELECT). It took the kindergarten and grades 1, 2 and 3 learning expectations into account in designing its developmental continuum. The Ontario Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program (FDELK) consolidates elements from ELECT and from the Kindergarten Program (2006). Quebec and British Columbia have prepared documents that link the goals of their early learning frameworks with kindergarten learning outcomes.
Continuing the early childhood educational pedagogical approaches into primary school allows new curriculum content to be introduced in ways that are both familiar and responsive to what children know and can do. Children enter kindergarten with considerable individual differences in cognitive and social development. Because schools operate on an annual basis eligibility spans a full year in most jurisdictions, children enter kindergarten if they are 5-years-old sometime during the calendar year. Some children are 4.8-years-old (4.6 in Alberta) when school starts in September, while others are 5.8-years-old (5.6 years in Alberta)—a full year’s difference in age.
Accountability in Toronto’s child care system
The City of Toronto plans, manages and supports child care and other children’s programs with a database that tracks information about program quality, child care spaces, child enrollment and use and demand for fee subsidies. The database supports a coherent, transparent planning process and informs the city’s Child Care Service Plan. The information allows the city to closely monitor use and to match allocation of subsidies and resources according to the service plan.
The City of Toronto Operating Criteria have evolved into a validated assessment of preschool child care programs. (Validation of operating criteria for the infant programs will proceed in the near future.) The annual program assessment results are used by programs for quality improvements and are made available on the city’s website, providing accountability to the public and allowing parents to make informed decisions about their child care options.
A variety of social indicators, including child care data and EDI results, are compiled in the annual Toronto Report Card on Children that monitors the health and well-being of the city’s children. The report is a collaborative effort between city staff from Children’s Services, Public Health, Parks and Recreation, Social Services, Social Development, Shelter Housing and Support and Toronto Public Library, as well as the school boards and child welfare agencies.
Canada is signatory to a number of international agreements committing it to provide reasonable access to early education and care programs. The UN Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination against Women obliges governments to provide sufficient, affordable child care as a women’s human rights issue. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights to children, including the provision of programs promoting the young child’s development, nutrition and health.
These processes play important roles in monitoring and reporting on governments’ progress in improving access to early childhood services in their countries. Outside of Quebec, Canada does not score well on compliance with UN documents. According to UNICEF, Canada achieved only one out of ten targets on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.54
The lack of transparent reporting to the Canadian public for early childhood investments and results has also been noted. Advocates have promoted an accountability framework that includes legislated standards, audited information and reporting to parliaments and legislatures. Federal/provincial/ territorial agreements propose that progress be monitored by jurisdictions providing annual reports to their respective publics. A 2007 investigation into reporting compliance found few governments used methodologies that allowed the public to easily track progress, and none met all of the performance and reporting requirements outlined in the FPT agreements.55
Yet monitoring is an integral part of democratic accountability to children, families and the public. It is essential for informed decision-making, ensuring that societal resources are deployed productively, scarce resources distributed equitably and social goals reached. The challenge is to develop monitoring systems that capture how programs are operating, what children are learning and if system goals are being met. Monitoring on its own does not deliver results, although it is a crucial part of a larger system designed to achieve them.
Learning outcomes for children cannot be considered apart from the inputs they experience in terms of program quality, and the health and well-being of their families and neighbourhoods. Each jurisdiction has established health and safety regulations that operators must meet as a condition of licensing. But like public health inspections of restaurants, child care regulations are intended to protect children’s well-being but tell us little about the quality of the experience.
Some jurisdictions apply additional criteria beyond basic licensing. The Toronto Operating Criteria is one example of an assessment tool that refl ects the quality of the entire learning environment; Alberta has a voluntary accreditation system for child care programs that ties the maintenance of quality benchmarks to funding. Several jurisdictions use the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale to monitor quality. It looks at both the physical space children occupy and the quality of the interactions between adults and children. When results are fed back to educators, it allows them to refl ect on their own practice. Parents seeking programs for their children can use quality ratings as information in making their program choices.
In 1999, the Early Years Study recommended the development of a population measure of early child development before entry to grade 1. The Offord Centre for Child Studies in Hamilton, Ontario introduced the Early Development Instrument (EDI) that collects kindergarten teacher reports of individual children’s development in five key domains: physical, social, emotional, language/cognitive and communication skills.
When EDI data are collected on all kindergarten children across a jurisdiction, they provide detailed information about how children are doing at the neighbourhood, community and provincial levels. Together with data about access to programs, neighbourhood status and family characteristics, researchers can describe children’s well-being as they enter formal schooling.
The EDI is now used in most regions across Canada.
Reporting formats of EDI results vary. In Alberta, the Early Child Development Mapping Initiative is a five-year research project of the education department that intends to give Alberta school authorities, communities and parents a comprehensive range of information on children’s development prior to kindergarten. In British Columbia, the Human Early Learning Partnership works in collaboration with the provincial government and local communities to map EDI results, socioeconomic data and demographic characteristics for local regions across the province. EDI data are used extensively to inform communities about how their children are doing and what can be done to improve children’s early learning environments. A Pan-Canadian initiative using the EDI is tracking results across the country.56
The longitudinal survey approach of the National Survey of Children and Youth and the Québec Longitudinal Study of Child Development collects information about child development at regular intervals from a birth cohort that is representative of the childhood population. Researchers and policy makers use longitudinal data to study developmental trajectories and assess how children’s environments influence their development.
The Manitoba Centre for Health Policy and the Human Early Learning Partnership in British Columbia link administrative records from health care, education and other records to create population- based, longitudinal data. To date, reports from British Columbia that link EDI and grade 4 and 6 data show a strong link between EDI findings and later results on province-wide school testing.57
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