The strength of EDI as a predictive tool

I am probably about to commit heresy: I hate the EDI.

The EDI, in long form the Early Development Instrument, has gained popularity as a population tool to rank students’ readiness for school. Developed by Dan Offord and Magdelena Janus at McMaster University, and popularized by Clyde Hertzman at the University of British Columbia, the EDI has been shown to have a strong correlation to the likelihood of a student cohort to achieve academically. But more tellingly, it strongly correlates to students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and the neighbourhoods where they live.

The EDI tool is administered in Senior Kindergarten by classroom teachers in the space of about fifteen minutes per student. To quote, students are assessed on five domains:

  • Physical Health and Well-being referring to physical readiness for the school day, physical independence, and gross and fine motor skills.
  • Social Knowledge and Competence referring to overall social competence, responsibility and respect, approaches to learning and readiness to explore new things.
  • Emotional Health and Maturity referring to prosocial and helping behaviours, anxious and fearful behaviour, aggressive behaviour and hyperactivity and inattention.
  • Language and Cognitive Development referring to basic and advanced literacy skills, interest in literacy/numeracy and memory, and basic numeracy skills.
  • Communication Skills & General Knowledge referring to the child’s ability to communicate needs and idea effectively and interest in the surrounding world.

In each of these domains, children who come from tougher economic circumstances or from outside the dominant linguistic or ethnoracial group are invariably disadvantaged. For instance, whether a child arrives to school with appropriate clothing, can discuss an idea, or knows her way around a picture book are all EDI measures. Low EDI scores are often, though not always, evidence of deprivation.

Children who start from further behind also face a higher hurdle, if they are to measure up to their peers. A different framework would  measure the improvements children may have made; instead the EDI uses a threshold to measure a child’s readiness for school. You make the cut-off or you’re at-risk.

The strengths that marginalized students might bring to the classroom, but which fall outside the scope of the the framework for “school readiness,” are also not recognized in the same weighty way. Internal resiliency in the face of a strange school setting doesn’t get measured.

(My favourite example of this was when the girl from across the street who spoke English as a second language began kindergarten with my daughter, she relied on my daughter to repeat the teacher’s instructions slowly. Then, in the afternoon, when they both attended Heritage language classes, they reversed roles. It was a creative coping strategy.)

Finally, I hate the the EDI because it can act as a proxy for teachers’ middle class prejudices and ethnocultural biases. However, therein also lies its strength.

Not surprisingly, groups of students who do poorly in academic rankings in Kindergarten generally continue to do poorly in the eyes of their teachers in higher grades. Teachers are at least consistent.

Like Robert Fulgham’s Kindergarten Poem, all your school really needs to know is how you did in kindergarten. If your Kindergarten teacher thought you were unruly and inattentive, then probably so will subsequent ones.

Research has shown that the EDI is a reliable predictor of children’s likelihood of completing school successfully. We can tell that early on who might not make it.

The EDI’s predictive ability is sad confirmation of the social gap that some identifiable demographic groups come from further behind and stay behind throughout their schooling.

Yet, there is hope. Hertzman’s work, with the school system in British Columbia, shows that a coordinated, community-based response can make a difference in the school readiness of all children. So, that is where our work begins.

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