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Opinions of Monday, 19 February 2007

Columnist: Asenso-Boakye, Francis

Early Childhood Education, Key to Improving Educational Achievements in Ghana

Making sure that every child has a chance to do well in school, both in cognitive and non-cognitive skills is a crucial goal of education. One can safely argue that, children's success in school to a large extent determines their success as adults - determining whether and where they go to college, what professions they enter, and how much they are paid.

This, I believe is the reason why most parents if not all parents send their children to school - they want to see their children become the leaders of tomorrow.

There are several factors that prevent education from achieving its goal. Schools serving low-income students receive fewer resources, face greater difficulties attracting qualified teachers, face many more challenges in addressing student's needs, and receive less support from parents (Lee and Burkam, 2002).

This inequality of school quality is widely recognized, not only in Ghana, but other parts of the world, and even in advanced countries such as the United States.

The NPP government has a policy of upgrading low quality schools to the standard of the likes of Prempeh, Achimota, Mfantipim, and others, in an effort at improving educational achievement in Ghana.

This underscores the government's acknowledgement of the inequality in school quality in Ghana. What is most often not given much recognition is the inequality facing children even before they get to the school going age.

Much as we all expect to increase achievement for all students regardless of class, income and family background, it is unthinkable to expect schools to completely eliminate any large inequalities soon after the children first enter the education system.

High quality early childhood education

The purpose of this article is to establish the linkages between the socioeconomic circumstances of children and their cognitive skills, and to suggest that high quality early childhood education holds the key to addressing this anomaly.

Lee and Burkam (2002) concluded that inequalities of children's cognitive ability are substantial right from the "starting gate."

This inequality at the starting gate is to a large extent influenced by the socioeconomic circumstances of the children - parents' education, parents' income and occupation and the environment they live in. This is in agreement with the "1968 Coleman Report" in the United States, which concluded that the strongest predictor of students' academic achievement is family background. What is this family background, otherwise known as socioeconomic status (SES) and how does it affect children's cognitive skills?

Parents' education

The level of parents' education has a considerable influence on the cognitive ability of their children. Parents who are educated with, say, a college degree are better able to help their children with their homework than parents with less education.

Educators for a long time have observed that homework exacerbate the academic differences between middle class and working class children, largely because middle class parents are more likely to assist effectively with homework (Rothstein, 2004).

The more educated parents are more likely to buy books for their kids and also engage in conversation with their children that are thought provoking, thus helping the kids to figure out things on their own than less educated parents, and in the process improve their cognitive ability.

Various studies confirm a positive correlation between parents' level of education and the academic achievement of their children. Cognitive skills of children are even more influenced by the mother's education because mothers are more likely to spend more time with their children than fathers. As a result, poor and uneducated mothers negatively affect their children's cognitive skills.

Parents' income level

Another socioeconomic factor that influences children cognitive skills gap is parents' income level. There is no doubt that parent's income levels do affect the cognitive skill of their children. There are a lot of books and video games that serve as learning aids for children even before they start school, which may not be affordable to low-income parents.

Low-income parents are more likely to spend their limited income on food, rent and other items, which they may consider as necessities. Middle-income parents, however, would find these learning aids more affordable so their children will acquire some basic literacy and numeric skills even before they enter kindergarten.

Middle-income parents are again able to provide a better nutrition for their kids than low-income parents. Nutrition, which leads to good quality health, also contributes to the cognitive skills gap (Rothstein, 2004).

The income level of parents again determines the living conditions of their children. Children living in quiet sub-urban environments are more likely to be better prepared for school than children living in inner city environments. This is because sub-urban environments are more conducive for learning than inner city communities, which have predominant minority and low-income populations. Studies confirm this fact the children who grow up in the suburbs perform much better than their counterparts from the inner city.

Parents' occupation

The type of parents' occupation is yet another socioeconomic circumstance that can influence children's reading habits, and therefore, their cognitive skills.

Parents whose occupation are such that they bring reading materials home from work demonstrate by example to their children that reading is not a segmented burden, but a seamless activity that bridges work and leisure (Rothstein, 2004). Parents whose occupations entail menial work where a lot of energy is expended come home very tired and cannot do anything but to go to bed.

This does not provide the necessary motivation for their children to read, thus contributing to the cognitive skill gap. These unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances that less privilege children face at the time they experience brain development affect not only their cognitive skills but their non-cognitive skill as well.

This, to a large extent, explains why Ghanaian children living in sub-urban areas in places such as Accra, Kumasi, Tema, etc., who have a more privilege family background appear to be doing much better than children in the rural areas.

Even medical research has demonstrated that the most rapid period of brain development occurs in the first few years of life, and that the experiences of early childhood have an enduring effect on an individual's future learning capacity.

Policy implications

The fact that socioeconomic circumstances of children affect their cognitive skills has serious policy implications. It gives us a clear idea as to where our focus should be.

A good education policy, in this respect, should target children before their school-going age.

Policies must address these inequalities at the "starting gate." Early childhood education programs - that will let these children with unfavorable socioeconomic circumstances receive similar resources and assistance middle class parents provide to their kids - will help reduce the initial disparities and bring all children on a common platform before they start school.

There is also strong consensus among the experts who have studied high quality early childhood development programs that these programs have substantial payoffs. Follow-up studies, especially in the United States, of poor children who have participated in these programs have found solid evidence of markedly better academic performance; and even decreased rates of criminal conduct and higher adult learning than among their non- participating counterparts.

Policies on adult education and parenting classes for less educated and low-income parents of young children will also go a long way in reducing the socioeconomic inequality at the "starting gate" and hence the cognitive skills gap.

The government's efforts at improving educational achievements by upgrading the so-called low quality high school may not solve the problem since the inequality starts even before these children start grade one, before they enter high school.

Government must, therefore, concentrate on investing more resources on high quality early childhood education programs so that Ghanaian children who do not have access to resources that privileged Ghanaians provide to theirs children, would also have access to those resources, thus making them start on the same platform.

*the author is a development policy analyst and can be reached at email: asensobo@msu.edu

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.