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start early to close the achievement gap

Last week, we discussed a simple solution to improve the Yukon's graduation rates: Parents need to ensure their children attend class. The territory's rampant absenteeism shows this isn't happening.

Last week, we discussed a simple solution to improve the Yukon’s graduation rates: Parents need to ensure their children attend class. The territory’s rampant absenteeism shows this isn’t happening. Blaming schools won’t fix it.

But improving attendance isn’t enough, if we’re serious about lifting the territory’s drop-out rates and closing the achievement gap between First Nation and other students. That’s because research shows that children’s key formative years occur before classes begin.

Consider this: by the age of three, a middle-class child has heard two million more words than a poor child, according to a study done in Kansas City in the 1980s.

Researchers believe the torrent of words heard by young children is crucial to language acquisition. That means one of the most important things parents can do to help their kids in school is to read to them regularly during their early years.

Middle-class parents already know this. But poor parents are often too overwhelmed with their own day-to-day challenges to keep up with modern childhood development research, or to apply it.

Now consider this: one-third of Yukoners aren’t able to read and write well enough to cope with modern society’s demands, according to the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey conducted in 2003.

And reflect on how First Nation residents shoulder much of the territory’s poverty. It’s no big stretch to suggest that, to fix the Yukon’s achievement gap, early childhood development needs to be part of the solution.

Some programs already exist or are on the way in the Yukon. Healthy Families brings support workers into the homes of overburdened families. Selkirk Elementary offers Learning Together, a free drop-in program for parents with children aged three to five. And the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, for one, has made the creation of an early childhood program one of its priorities.

But it’s clear that more could be done. One interesting model is found in Harlem. It’s called Baby College, and it gives poor parents the tools they need to ensure their children are on equal footing with their peers when they begin class. It puts a big emphasis on reading to children and using verbal discipline over corporal punishment.

Baby College is part of a much larger, ambitious project called Harlem Children’s Zone, which aims to ensure poor kids can someday attend college. It’s caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who is trying to replicate its success elsewhere. It should catch the attention of Grand Chief Ruth Massie and Premier Darrell Pasloski, too.

(To learn more, they could start by listening to a radio program first aired several years ago by This American Life, and follow up by reading Whatever it Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America.)

They should also consider the findings of James Heckman, an economist with the University of Chicago. He believes that perhaps the best investment a government could make is in providing free preschool to poor families.

His views are supported by a study conducted on poor, black children in Perry, Michigan. Half, picked with a coin toss, were provided with free preschool at the age of three. The group was later tracked until the age of 40.

Those who attended preschool possessed more motivation, perseverance and self-control. They were significantly more likely to graduate from high school, and significantly less likely to end up in jail.

Heckman reckons the program provided the government with a handsome rate of return of seven per cent. Several other studies support the Perry experiment’s conclusions that, as far as government investments go, preschool is hard to beat.

It certainly appears to be a wiser investment than job training and other pricey programs later in life, which often produce questionable results.

Closing the achievement gap should be a priority of our sitting politicians. The next time the Yukon’s chiefs and Premier Pasloski meet, we hope that early childhood education is on the agenda.