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Canada’s Fragmented Data Collection System Yields False Results

OTTAWA, April 2 – Canada is world leader in the development of population health monitoring tools but still doesn’t have a mechanism to assess how well its own children are doing. “Our current data collection systems are fragmented, potentially leading to faulty analysis and inappropriate policy remedies, “says Clyde Hertzman, President of the Council for Early Childhood Development, commenting on the newly released proceedings from the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre’s Monitoring Committee Workshop.

Data analysis is used widely by academics and policy makers. Findings are used to predict and prepare for trends in health or the labour market. They are used to assess the impact of government programs on important policy goals such as reducing child poverty. Others, like standardized school testing, were developed as measures of accountability to parents and taxpayers for publicly-funded education.

The “Composite Learning Index” developed by the Canadian Council on Learning was the first index in the world to provide a picture of lifelong learning across a country. The index uses a wide range of indicators from post-secondary attainment to newspaper readership. A high score on the index indicates greater numbers of people more likely to be social and economic contributors – a valued asset in economies that rely on a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. The Early Development Instrument (EDI), developed in Canada and used internationally, assesses the state of children’s development at kindergarten, a reliable gauge since differences at age five appear to persist throughout life.

“We need to know how children are doing when they are young,” says Hertzman. “Because children are the early warning systems of the health of communities; we also need to know how they are faring in their neighborhoods, and how both are changing over time. Linked together, individual, community and longitudinal data are the building blocks of a system of early child development statistics that Canada needs.”

Good systems exist but when they aren’t linked false conclusions can emerge. A case in point is featured in the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy Analysis of Grade 12 language scores. Winnipeg school administrators were pleased with test results showing a good pass rate for students across all social-economic classes. But when the board’s tally was linked to population data the story changed. Only 27% of students from the low-income group passed the exam compared to 77% of their more affluent peers. Standardized tests assess only those students who write the test; they don’t capture those who are behind a grade, have dropped out or otherwise didn’t show up to school on exam day.

Findings which buck expected trends were also found in work by the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP) that Hertzman directs at the University of British Columbia. Typically population health measures for Aboriginal peoples are notoriously below those of non-Aboriginals. Yet HELP’s analysis of Aboriginal children in 51 communities in BC found several communities functioning above the average for the mainstream population. Answering why some communities are better places for Aboriginal children to grow up in than others can inform policy directions, says Hertzman.

The HELP model which provides the capacity to collect, analyze and report on data to inform communities about their children’s progress was featured in the Early Years Study 2, co-authored by child development expert, Dr. Fraser Mustard “Child population health appraisals are democratic watchdogs revealing how well governments are meeting their national and international commitments. They demonstrate returns on taxpayer investments and expose inequities between groups and regions, but their output is only as good as their inputs,” Mustard wrote.

Questions and Answers from the Proceedings from the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre’s Monitoring Committee Workshop

What data collection approaches is the Council for Early Childhood Development (CECD) recommending?

Canada needs a system of early child development statistics to monitor the well-being of children across Canada. Data from nationwide monitoring of the state of children’s development would be routinely linked to health services and education data to predict population trends allowing for regional and community analysis and comparisons.

Why a “system of statistics”; what is wrong with current assessments?

Early child development is a foundation of health, well-being, learning, and behaviour across the life course. Children are the early warning systems of society. Their health and well-being is a predictor of the health and well-being of the society. The capacity to monitor child development over time and by location is basic to successful policy-making in every sphere – labour market development, health, the environment. Today everyone is doing data collection differently. This can lead to faulty conclusions: flawed policies come from flawed data systems

How are children society’s “early warning systems”?

Evaluations of child well-being are not new. A century ago, statistics on maternal and infant mortality catapulted public hygiene onto the policy agenda. Safe drinking water legislation was passed and public health units formed. These efforts slashed mother/child death rates and contributed to the overall health of the population. While still in use, and still useful, these measures are inadequate to appraise the quality of children’s lives today. A broader approach is required that is able to gauge the physical and socio-economic environments of early childhood that influence health, learning, and behaviour.

How does flawed data produce flawed policies?

Most policies are focused on treatment, rather than prevention. Schools for example, are called upon to equalize opportunities for children across socio-economic levels. Analysis indicates all children show remarkable similarities at birth, yet children who start school behind their peers rarely catch up. If the policy goal is to provide a level playing field for all children then waiting until formal schooling begins is too late. Governments need to intervene with effective preschool programs to close the opportunity gap.

Are early childhood programs the only remedy?

By linking data at the individual, community and national level we are able to assess the multiplicity of factors that influence human development. Data sets which allow for a broad understanding of early development transcends the boundaries of any single policy envelope-for example, education, health, child care, welfare, or justice-to see how the interrelations between all of these areas influence children before they begin school.

Why focus on school readiness?

Children who have access to adequate nutrition and shelter, positive stimulation, and warm and loving environments, and who are in good health will start their formal education at the point from which they can make the highest gains. Those who lack these basic necessities will, on average, remain behind and many will not graduate from high school. Because formal education contributes to literacy, health, the work we do, our future earnings, and even the capacity to be good parents and active citizens, school readiness is a marker that matters.

Doesn’t neighbourhood analysis lead to the branding of whole communities?

The purpose is not to pit geographic areas against each other, but to allow areas to learn from each other. For policy and community development purposes, some of the most interesting communities are those whose child development findings defy their socio-economic standings. Policy-makers will want to learn from communities that are able to protect their children from negative socio-economic influences. Equally interesting are communities where children show high vulnerability despite their advantages. Pinpointing the reasons for these anomalies allow for more effective interventions.

For the complete study see Bringing it Together: Merging Community-Based, Life-Course, Linked Data, and Social Indicator Approaches to Monitoring Child Development, Proceedings from the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre’s Monitoring Committee Workshop


For further information: or to arrange interviews contact: Pippa Rowcliffe, (o) (604) 827-5797, (mobile) (778) 990-5797, [email protected]; Bringing it Together: Merging Community-Based, Life-Course, Linked Data, and Social Indicator Approaches to Monitoring Child Development, Proceedings from the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre’s Monitoring Committee Workshop The Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre is part of the Canadian Council on Learning. Early Years Study 2