Early Childhood Education – New Opportunities for Investment and Innovation?

At the recent ASU-GSV meeting in San Diego, nearly 5,000 ed-tech innovators convened to discuss opportunities and challenges in education and talent innovation from “pre-K to gray.”  (“Gray” was not much in evidence at the conference, but that’s a topic for another blog.) The theme of the conference, “Bending the Arc of Human Potential,” is especially relevant for the pre-K or early childhood space. A well-organized, half-day, “pop-up” session was frank about the challenges of reaching this market but also highlighted the emergence of opportunities for ed-tech entrepreneurs, funders, and investors. We were interested to see that organizations like Promise Venture Studio and Omidyar Network are catalyzing the ecosystem to generate new ideas and solutions.

Volta Learning Group has been working for several years on a portfolio of projects supporting early childhood educators in Massachusetts.  The early childhood space neatly ties together the other threads of our consulting work: competency-based learning models for underserved adults that are linked to employability skills needed in the future economy.   

Policymakers and educators have realized for a long time that a dollar spent in early childhood is worth many dollars in educational attainment and economic development later on. Programs such as Headstart and public pre-K have proven their value over time. In fact, according to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, high-quality childcare/education can see ROIs of up to $16.00 for every dollar invested.   Massachusetts has prioritized upskilling and credentialing their ECE workforce, which consists of some 75,000 educators. For many of them, their only formal training for the job consists of a single course in the field.  But in a low-unemployment state like Massachusetts, the availability of quality education and care is critical to attracting and retaining the talent the Commonwealth needs to prosper.  

To address these issues, we have been partnering with a consortium of Massachusetts community colleges to build capacity in competency-based learning.  The competency-based approach is critical to identifying — and putting in place — the essential capabilities that teachers and others must have to provide high-quality ECE.  Competency-based learning also offers needed flexibility to working adults as well as close alignment with the federal, state, and programmatic standards for educators in the field. The goal is to create competency-based pathways for skill development that will enable all ECE educators in Massachusetts to develop professionally.   

But there are many challenges in creating a high-quality system of early childhood care and education. One is the current reality: the existing “system” is multi-layered and extremely varied, ranging from home-based providers with little training to well-staffed and subsidized centers with highly credentialed educators.  And there is a central paradox: while increasing quality is a worthwhile goal, there are already severe shortages of teachers to do this work. Staff are often paid very poorly — minimum wage at many centers — and leave for better-paying jobs at the first opportunity. But while the salaries of early childhood workers are often very low, the cost of the education and care they provide is usually very high, creating serious financial challenges for many families.  Furthermore, requiring more education and credentials of teachers and providers risks destabilizing the system itself. ECE is so essential to working parents — and thus to their employers — that any disruption in the system is costly to individuals as well as to the economy. This is not true not only in Massachusetts, but across the nation: According to the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, breakdowns in childcare cost businesses over 3 billion dollars a year.

But ultimately, establishing higher expectations for ECE providers will create a virtuous cycle that creates benefits for employers, working parents and the providers themselves.  Most important, it will ensure all children and their families have access to high-quality care and education — not just the wealthiest.

 

By Kris Clerkin and Kate Kazin

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