Why the Future of Pre-K is at Home

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What investment returns up to $17 for every dollar spent, is proven to help children graduate from high school and college, and has supporters like Goldman Sachs? Early childhood education.

Awareness of this crucial learning period has never been higher. So how should we capitalize on this opportunity to make a meaningful, smart investment in early childhood education? Use technology to bring high quality pre-K to every household.

Economic Disparities in Pre-K

Formative educational years start in utero—there’s even evidence that reading to a fetus during gestation is beneficial. Children who miss out on crucial stimulation can fall behind early, increasing the risk of falling between the cracks for life. But it’s shockingly easy for young kids to miss out on the most important years of their education.

A combination of poverty and policy is behind the lack of universal access to high-quality pre-K.

There is unequal access to pre-K based on socio-economic status. For example, there tends not to be transportation to Pre-K, and it is the exception rather than the norm that Pre-K is freely available to the public. The magnitude of this problem is evidenced by child poverty rates at a 20 year high: 16.4 million of all children in the United States, or 22 percent, live in poverty, according to the most recent Census. One study has even found that attending a part-time private preschool costs more than a semester at a state college.

But even if the economic barriers were removed, the current state of Pre-K would not be equally distributed or of uniform quality.

Hard to Scale

While federal funding is available, many states don’t prioritize the youngest learners. One reason is because pre-school is the hardest part of education to scale.

Most states prioritize K-12 funding, despite the fact that pre-K learning has the strongest correlations with positive outcomes as an adult. Ten states did not fund pre-K programs at all between 2012-2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In those states that do fund pre-K, only 30 percent of 4-year olds and 5 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled—even though Pre-K for 3-year-olds is just as important developmentally, if not more so.

The teacher-to-student ratio is low, and needs to be, per the National Associate for the Education of Young Children. That means you need more teachers and therefore, more money to pay them.

Even with enough teachers, quality remains a concern. Accredited programs may only have teachers with high-school diplomas: in many states, there is no requirement that pre-K teachers have a college degree.

With these challenges of scalability, even if all pre-K teachers were required to have advanced degrees—and Americans were willing to pay for them—it would still take years to cultivate that workforce. Establishing reliable transportation and infrastructure would take even more funding, as would establishing standards and regulations in those states without existing pre-K programs. Accessible pre-K is a ball of twine that can’t be unwound in months or a year.

The American pre-K system is expensive and historically, not a particularly high-priority for politicians. Luckily, we have a flexible and cost effective approach to pre-K, literally at our fingertips.

Technology as a Flexible Pre-K Solution

Edtech - and specifically mobile technology - puts the best early educational practices into everyone’s hands: teachers, parents and kids. Subject matter experts curate online content and those lessons, when loaded onto low-cost mobile devices, will empower parents to be coaches and reliable guides to resources created by subject matter experts. It is impossibly expensive to make every pre-K teacher a subject matter expert, but it is quite possible to bring a couple subject matter experts to every adult willing to help a three year old learn.

Enabling early childhood education to happen both inside and outside the home improves flexibility for parents and can have the effect of lowering costs across the board. Consider hardware, for example - mobile devices are virtually ubiquitous in the United States across all socioeconomic strata.

At-home edtech can also short-circuit the political gridlock over when and how it’s appropriate for the state to step into a child’s early development, by making quality materials available at the time and place parents choose to offer them. States are charged with educating their citizens, but they have no vehicle to deliver their curriculum other than a brick-and-mortar model. Children should be presented with educational content as early as parents are willing to use it, and currently there’s no way for parents to access public education until their children are four or five years old.

Helping Low-Income Parents

A collection of high-quality state-funded pre-K educational content that is optimized for mobile consumption can be of huge benefit to children of low-income parents. These parents may not themselves have the knowledge or expertise to find the right content or engage kids in developmentally appropriate activities.

For example - should a three-year-old be working on recognizing the emotions behind facial expressions, counting to 100 or writing ABCs? The real problem with educational content that we must solve is that there is a socioeconomic difference in children’s abilities to access educational resources - what’s been termed “the second digital divide.” Even though access to technology has improved for poorer families, performance gaps have widened because of differences in the type of content accessed. It’s incumbent upon us to provide equal access to high quality content.

And what about working families? Pre-K at home sounds like a lot of extra work for parents. We’ve already seen how the brick-and-mortar model of distributing educational services has its limits, but at least it provides reliable childcare.

When technology disrupts an industry the initial reaction is to use it to make a faster, better copy of the status quo. The promise of mobile in education is not recreating pre-school on a tablet, it’s the possibility that a parent, aunt, uncle, or other caregiver and child can weave educational vignettes into their lives.

If we just recreate today’s preschool on a tablet, we’ll have to make the unenviable choice between kids passively absorbing three hours of content or forcing an already busy parent with a full-time job to commit an additional three hours of their day. We don’t need a faster horse, we need a new type of vehicle altogether.

Edtech for Pre-K At Home

Initiatives are already underway to harness the advantages of edtech-driven, curated, at-home pre-K.

In Texas, The United Way’s Play to Learn initiative with has produced solid results at an estimated annual cost of $1,100 per student, less than one-third of even low-cost traditional teacher/student pre-K interventions.

Kidaptive, is a company that provides an adaptive learning platform for preschool aged children, tailoring content and pacing to the individual child, it’s accessible anywhere, any time.

Ready Rosie is another company trying to weave early childhood ed into everyday routines by delivering a steady stream of videos to a parent’s email that teach them how to help their children achieve important developmental milestones, e.g. how to teach phonics while waiting in the drive-thru line.

PBS Kids is building a strong digital presence that aims to deliver excellent, evidenced-based content to kids where they consume most of their media—on mobile devices. They’re even making a concerted effort to reach parents too.

The Urgency of Pre-K Innovation

The United States ranks in the bottom one-third of the developed world in terms of pre-K, according to an OECD report. Like most complex problems, delivering high quality pre-K with mobile technology will require a diversity of approaches like those mentioned above. Some will be provided by the government, others by tech companies or nonprofits - often it will be some combination.

It’s said that education is always the last thing to change. We can’t let that be true for those young children: now is precisely the time that they learn best. 

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