A Life Devoted to Healthy Development for All: J. Fraser Mustard

November 28, 2011

The Toronto Star recently reported the sad news that Canadian physician and researcher Dr. James Fraser Mustard died in his home at age 84. In addition to being a part of the research team that discovered aspirin could help reduce the likelihood of heart disease, Dr. Mustard studied early childhood development with his research influencing his home province’s education policy. His Early Years Study was used by the Ministry of Education in Ontario when it established a program to offer full-day kindergarten throughout the province. His broader body of work influenced early childhood policy around the globe.

Dr. Mustard was a strong global disseminator of the science base for public investments in early childhood development.  He was expert in tying together diverse research from medicine, neuroscience, and social science so as to make clear to virtually any audience the connections and implications. Dr. Mustard had a keen understanding of the impacts of early brain development on later outcomes including adult health.  He also understood the importance of showing policymakers and the public that the relationship between socio-economic background and human development is a gradient—a smooth continuous slope—and that the level and steepness of these slopes varies considerably across nations depending on their public policies.  As he wrote in 2010:

“Results from developmental neurobiology studies and animal and human studies provide strong evidence that early neurobiological development affects health (physical and mental), behaviour and learning in the later stages of life. Countries that provide quality universal early development programs for families with young children tend to out-perform countries in which the early development programs are chaotic.”

Mustard was born in Toronto, Ontario and attended the University of Toronto. He later conducted postgraduate study at the University of Cambridge before returning to the University of Toronto as a research associate. He was also involved with the National Heart Foundation of Canada, the Canadian Heart Foundation, and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, amongst others. Dr. Mustard was a founding member of both the McMaster Medical School and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, a multidisciplinary nonprofit that has conducted research on topics such as economic growth and policy, experience-based brain and biological development,  human-environment interactions, human development, population health, and successful societies.

Beginning in the 1980s, Dr. Mustard became more involved with research on early childhood development and learning. He became the head of the Founders’ Network, a group dedicated to studying economic and social impacts on health and human development, with an emphasis on early childhood. Dr. Mustard’s research work produced the 1999 report on the Early Years Study commissioned by the government of Ontario and follow-up reports in 2002 and 2007. Collectively, the reports criticized Canada’s commitment to preschool learning and called for national early childhood development initiatives on par with K-12 education as a means to promote lifelong healthy outcomes. In 2004, Dr. Mustard co-founded the Council for Early Childhood Development, an organization whose goals include promoting the message of the Early Years Study and further studying early childhood development.

We are heartened that Dr. Mustard’s work proceeds on. Less than a week after his death, a third report based on the Early Years Study was published, recommending that children as young as 2 years old should have access to voluntary prekindergarten education. And, the full-day kindergarten initiative in Ontario continues to roll out, with final implementation slated for September 2014.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Celebrating Children’s Rights

November 18, 2011

© Jen Fitzgerald

Since 1954, the United Nations (UN) has observed November 20 as “Universal Children’s Day,” a day to honor children and promote activities for their welfare. On this day in 1959, the UN General Assembly adopted their Declaration of the Rights of the Child. On this date in 1989, these rights became legally binding to all UN member countries that ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which at present includes all member countries except Somalia and the United States. However, not all countries act equally on the goals of the Convention—many signatories are not taking proactive steps, while the United States, who has not signed, may even be doing more on some fronts.

The basic premise of the Convention is that all children are born with fundamental freedoms and inherent rights, and the principles held within it further UN goals of protecting children’s rights, including expanding opportunities to advance children’s potential as well as meeting their basic needs. Like human rights in general, children’s rights are based on respect for each individual’s dignity and incorporate civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights. Article 28 of the Convention outlines very specific goals for children’s educational opportunities:

1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to education, and with a view to achieving this right progressively and on the basis of equal opportunity, they shall, in particular:

(a) Make primary education compulsory and available free to all;

(b) Encourage the development of different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational education, make them available and accessible to every child, and take appropriate measures such as the introduction of free education and offering financial assistance in case of need;

(c) Make higher education accessible to all on the basis of capacity by every appropriate means;

(d) Make educational and vocational information and guidance available and accessible to all children;

(e) Take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that school discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human dignity and in conformity with the present Convention.

3. States Parties shall promote and encourage international cooperation in matters relating to education, in particular with a view to contributing to the elimination of ignorance and illiteracy throughout the world and facilitating access to scientific and technical knowledge and modern teaching methods. In this regard, particular account shall be taken of the needs of developing countries.

Even without having ratified the Convention, the U.S. has long had free and compulsory education for children from first grade through high school. However, we at NIEER feel that our country is missing a golden opportunity but not providing more free – although voluntary – educational services when children are younger. Full-day kindergarten programs are far from the norm throughout the country, and access to freely available prekindergarten is limited rather than universal and varies greatly from state to state. Preschool education programs can further many of the goals in Article 28, including the reduction of drop-out rates, combating chronic absenteeism, and the elimination of illiteracy. Studies have found that preschool education programs have long-term outcomes and far-reaching benefits beyond school success, including financial stability, reducing crime, preparing U.S. military forces, and better health, all of which are in line with the UN’s vision for both children and adults.

Though publicly-funded pre-K remains the domain of state governments in the U.S., early education is gaining traction as an issue of international importance. As a recent OECD report noted the decrease in well-qualified workers globally, NIEER’s Steve Barnett responded that “far too many of our children enter kindergarten so far behind that higher education will not be within their reach, despite the best efforts of our schools to prepare them.” Recognizing the lifelong impact of early childhood education, developing nations are offering such programs, including Colombia (where NIEER is conducting a study). Early childhood education stands as one of the most effective interventions in facing the modern challenges of a global economy, a fact recognized by campaigns from both the OECD and the UN. A strong research base has demonstrated that providing access to preschool is beneficial to the society as a whole and furthers children’s rights not just in education but in other areas as well. Indeed, it can contribute to the Convention’s goals of “the full and harmonious development of [a child’s] personality” and allow a “child [to] be fully prepared to live an individual life in society.” The UN must continue to provide specific goals and technical assistance as countries work towards their vision of respecting and promoting the rights of all children.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

OECD Report Sounds a Warning: Early Education Needed Now More Than Ever

November 1, 2011

One critical lesson we can draw from this recession is that demand for knowledge workers is increasing at a furious rate — so fast that many skilled people who found themselves out of work when the recession began now find themselves behind the curve knowledge wise as they apply for new jobs. As old jobs have gone by the wayside, the new ones, scarce as they are, are requiring more skills of applicants.

The growing importance of education in the labor market is underscored in a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Data from across OECD’s member nations shows that unemployment rates among university graduates stood at an average 4.4 percent in 2009, a year after the recession began. People who left school without qualifications experienced an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent in 2009, up from 8.7 percent the year before. These figures are likely different now (and not for the better), but the disparity between the educated and relatively uneducated remains, without a doubt, valid.

OECD calculated employment levels for citizens in three education categories: 1) Below upper secondary, 2) Upper secondary and post-secondary (but not tertiary) and 3) Tertiary educations. Those categories roughly account for 1) High school dropouts, 2) High school graduates with some secondary schooling, and 3) College graduates. What they found was that in 2009 for OECD member countries as a whole, 56 percent of category 1 was employed, 74 percent of category 2 was employed and 84 percent of category 3 was employed. The U.S. workforce placed below these levels at 52, 69 and 81 percent employed respectively. (Note: Because of the way the numbers are compiled it is not valid to infer unemployment levels from these employment data.)

The report also shows how the global talent pool is changing: Japan and the United States have nearly half of all tertiary-educated adults in the OECD area (47 percent). But that lead is slipping. While it’s true that one in three university-educated retirees resides in the U.S., it is also true that only one in five university graduates entering the workforce does.

Contrast this picture with China where only 5 percent of adults have a tertiary degree. Because of its population size, however, China now ranks second behind the U.S. and ahead of Japan in population with tertiary attainment.

Why are these figures important? Because, says the report, the earnings premium (net present value over a lifetime) for an individual with a tertiary degree exceeds $300,000 for men and $200,000 for women across the 34 OECD countries.

With trends like these and the apparent absence of political will to boost investment in education, it is little wonder that OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria talks about the developed countries producing a “lost generation” of citizens who will be ill-equipped to make their way in the ever more competitive world.

So why am I focusing on higher education in a blog on preschool education?  Because far too many of our children enter kindergarten so far behind that higher education will not be within their reach, despite the best efforts of our schools to prepare them.  If the United States is to increase the percentage of our population with education beyond high school, we will have to do a much better job educating children in the first five years.  The current recession only makes that more difficult, of course, but the choices we make now at local, state, and national levels will determine whether the United States will have–as Thomas Friedman has argued–“a hard decade or a bad century.”

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

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