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Innovation Partner Insights Society

Big Ideas, Little Learners

New Omidyar Network report explores early childhood megatrends and where learning could go

In 2018 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — an icon of encouragement that positively educated millions of young children. Only a few years before the show debuted, Head Start piloted a successful eight-week summer program in 1965. It subsequently scaled the program nationally as part of the War On Poverty. Sesame Workshop was born shortly afterwards. The past 50 years have seen major progress for young children and families.

In addition, tremendous breakthroughs in brain science have clearly established why the early years are so critical in a young child’s development. We now understand how children learn and develop with increasing precision. Furthermore, we can even make a powerful economic case for investing: well-designed early childhood programs have been shown to yield demonstrable societal returns — 13 percent — one of the highest societal returns on investment ever measured.

Spending on new companies and projects for children skews towards older ones, even as data shows the biggest ROI is in early childhood, as Omidyar reports. (Source: Pitchbook data, showing seed through Series D financing in early childhood; annualized for 2018, as of October.)

Time Is Now

Understanding the importance of the early years is becoming mainstream. National, state, city, and local policymakers are starting to pay attention. Parents have also heard the message, and families are increasing how much they spend on early childhood, especially more affluent parents who can afford it.

Despite these upward trends, investment in early childhood remains massively inadequate in the U.S., both compared to other nations and to what we spend on other age groups.Early childhood educators and programs are underfunded relative to the proven needs, and it is leaving too many children and families behind. According to the Human Capital Index recently released by the World Bank, the U.S. education system only delivers 76 percent of human potential(putting the U.S. on par with Serbia).

So, how do we close the gap between the demands of a new generation of parents, educators, and policymakers who recognize the importance of early childhood education and the relative scarcity of scalable solutions that allow every child to thrive?It’s a given that we must increase public funding for evidence-based solutions, such as quality pre-K programs, Early Head Start and home visitation programs, and increase the compensation and stature of the early childhood workforce. But we at Omidyar Networkalso believe we need to attract entrepreneurial and leadership talent to the early childhood field, along with innovation-focused capital. That is a critical way to ultimately increase the supply of quality solutions.

With the release of our major new report, Big Ideas, Little Learners, we hope to showcase megatrends driving new demand and supply in early childhood education. We hope it will ignite even more conversations, ideas, and action.

Some of the top trends the report highlights:

Demand: A New America

The structure of American families has dramatically changed, which means we have increasing and different child care needs. Two-thirds of children under five now live in homes where both parents work, compared with fewer than one in 10 in 1940. And a quarter of all post-secondary students must care for a dependent child. With the structure of American families changing, so too do the demographics. In 2017, the majority of children under the age of five were children of color.

As generations shift, parents’ and educators’ expectations also evolve. As mobile device penetration and social media usage increases, Gen Y (millennial) and Gen Z parents and educators have different habits and behaviors for how they receive information, find services (including child care), and connect to meet their parenting needs. For example, seventy-one percent of Gen Y parents report valuing advice from parenting blogs, websites, and social media.

Supply: Promising New Innovation, Talent, and Funding

We are encouraged by the rise of both nonprofit and for-profit entrepreneurship developing new companies and organizations that will help children. It’s also great that founders are increasingly representative of the communities they serve. Moreover, public and private funding for early childhood programs in the U.S. is steadily rising (up 17 percent and 12 percent respectively in the past two years).

As technology advances in all other aspects of our lives, its benefits are finally being translated into innovations for early childhood. Technologies are helping reach more diverse children, including refugees, children in rural areas, dual language learners, and children with special needs. The increasing capacity of artificial intelligence to process data and make recommendations is also starting to penetrate early childhood, including through wearables, assessment, behavioral nudges such as fun facts and easy tips on parenting via text messages, and learning pathways.

However, innovation is not just about technology. There are also exciting new developments in distribution and platform models for the early childhood workforce, new ways to foster adult-child interactions, new policies, and new modes of collaboration and collective impact.  For example, Wildflower is an ecosystem of decentralized Montessori micro-schools that support children, teachers, and parents, empowering educators through a support platform. Organizations like the Campaign for Third Grade Level Reading and StriveTogether are fostering collective impact across communities throughout the U.S.

Looking Forward: A World of Possibility

The future is upon us, and the future never stops. We hope our trend report, released today, is helpful not just for examining the megatrends impacting our present and future, but for understanding those burgeoning innovations that have the potential to increase quality, affordability, and relevancy of solutions to meet the needs and aspirations of modern parents, educators, and our diverse little learners. We also recognize that innovations, pursued haphazardly, can make our society more inequitable or have negative consequences.

So much great progress is possible. It is up to all of us to ensure that the innovations we pursue unlock human potential, so that every child thrives and contributes in a changing and interdependent world.

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