11 December 2017

Educators, Entrepreneurship, & Early Learning | Ashley Beckner

This piece incorporates research and data from Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children: A Funder's Guide to Early Childhood Development from ...

We're going to start in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I moved to join the

founding team of Bricolage, a charter school that sought to think differently about how we educate all children. Of the many fundamental principles, one was a belief in the importance of diverse environments. These kiddos are some of the seventy five four- and five-year-olds who joined our very first kindergarten class, and they came to us diverse in so many ways. Some of that you can see up here but from any of you who have spent time with a five-year-old you know what complex human beings they already are at that age, and there's so much about their diversity that can't be seen on this image. But there's one aspect of it that was particularly concerning. They came to us with wildly different abilities in language, cognitive skills, socio-emotional development, physical and motor skills, and their general approaches to learning. These five pillars of skills and development make up what we refer to as kindergarten readiness, and on their first day of compulsory education our kids were in very different places for how prepared they were to take advantage of the next 13 to 20 years of school and beyond. But how could this possibly be? Weren't they coming to school to learn all this stuff? What we now know is that 85% or more of the brain develops before the age of five. 85%. And what happens during that period of time is critical to a person's future, yet we don't start formal schooling in the U.S. until the vast majority of that brain is already developed. In young children, the brain is built through interactions with parents and caregivers starting even before birth. Responsive facial expressions, exchanges of language, physical touch, and many and many other things. And after birth children come into the world and they move fluidly across these different environments. They spend time with their parents, in the homes of family and friends, and in more formal care settings, and all of these settings have very very different degrees of quality. And with no structures in place to ensure that all children are engaged in positive quality interactions in their early years, more than half of all low-income children in the US are entering kindergarten not ready. What's even further astounding is that 25 percent of all high-income children are entering kindergarten not ready. If

we need to ensure more positive quality interactions then after supporting strong parenting, we also need to look at the early childhood workforce. Recruitment and retention of qualified educators plagues the early childhood field and with very, very good reason. Early childhood educators have low salaries, poor working conditions, and limited professional development. In 2013 childcare workers in the US were paid in the third earnings percentile. I didn't say 30th, not even 13th, third. Right alongside parking lot attendants. We pay the people who care for our children at the same rate as the people who care for our cars. And what shouldn't be surprising is that then results in 27% annual turnover in an industry where children benefit from consistency. So what should we do about it? You might think, and I would agree, that we should increase our spending at a time with such a high return on investment. But I also worry that we don't have the time to wait for our political leaders to catch up. Maybe we should get started, build another system similar to the one in which we educate our five to eighteen year olds. But that system was built over the course of one and a half centuries, and while the marvel of public education should be admired, it also really has its flaws. It takes the power out of the hands of the person closest to the student, the teacher, and it also uses scarce resources to fund this large infrastructure of buildings and administration. So what if we could take the system out of play altogether? What if we could find the best caregivers and educators, and give them the tools they need to become an ecosystem of early childhood entrepreneurs, providing a wide range of quality early learning options to young families the good news is that while nascent, technology is already enabling this to happen, and the companies that are focused on it are expanding rapidly. The early childhood sector is already full of entrepreneurs. Small business owners run family daycares, small chains of centers, and individual preschools. And with technology as an enabler, the early childhood sector is poised to take the best of what we've learned from the sharing and gig economies to empower an even greater number of educators to deliver quality care and education to

young children. There are many aspects of the sharing and gig economies that are being applied to early childhood, but I want to highlight three today. The first is flexible working arrangements. So as you all know and as we've seen all around us, people are being empowered to work when and how they want to and consumers are using platforms to connect directly with service providers. Tinkergarten recruits and trains leaders from across the country to deliver play-based classes in local parks. Families can connect directly with these local providers in their communities. Co-founders Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald first got their start by running classes for their friends' children in a neighborhood park in Brooklyn. And given the level of interest in what they were doing, they built a platform that would enable them to expand in just a few years to 48 states with now nearly a thousand leaders running classes. With thousands of applications coming in every single month, this company is bringing the outdoors back into the lives of children across the country and is also changing the way we think about the definition of the early childhood workforce, who they are and how they're employed. But we still have to solve the problem of the need for full-time quality care that most parents have and I'm sure that many people in the room have experienced. And for that we turn to Wonderschool. Wonderschool is taking the foundation of Airbnb and applying it to preschools and daycares. They work with experienced educators to help them start and run their own preschools and daycares out of their homes. They're taking the sharing economy principle of putting to use an underutilized asset, a provider's own home, to help individuals start and run very quickly with minimal overhead. They support in licensing, program set up, marketing, and everything in between. They're taking the headache of running a business out of the equation, so that the educator can focus on what they're best at: caring for and educating young children. Yet perhaps the most important impact platforms are having in early childhood is a reduction in administration, hierarchy, and bureaucracy. Wildflower Schools are an ecosystem of decentralized Montessori micro-schools.

Say that one 110 times fast. And I also just learned that we have a Wildflower parent in the room. Keya, I don't know if you're around. So these are one to two room schools where the teacher is both teaching and running the school. And the good news for Keya is that that teacher is close to her child and is making decisions at that school in the context of her vision for her families, her children, and herself. Wildflower is building technology tools that will help these teachers start and run schools more quickly and easily. And they will be sharing them open source, so that all schools can benefit from them. There will always be a need for some level of administrative tasks, but with a teacher in charge, the most important decisions will be made by the person closest to the end consumer, their students. All of these platforms reflect the broadly held education mantra that teachers know best. If we actually believe that, if it's not something that just feels nice and that we like to say, then we need to give the tools to teachers that put the power into their hands. Technology has the power to empower educators, increase access to quality learning environments, and reduce administrative layers, leaving more resources to go directly to educators and increase their compensation. If we can make early childhood a more desirable pursuit for these highly qualified educators, then maybe we can ensure that more kids show up to kindergarten with the skills they need and maybe even more than they need. Maybe the path to effective early childhood education is not another system and is not more standardization, but it is in enabling more individuals and more innovation. The keys to brain development lie in a child's interaction with adults in the world around him. I don't think that technology is ever going to replace the neural connections that are formed when a caregiver holds a baby in her arms, nor do I think that they are a substitute for the way that a three-year-old's brain is set on fire as they explore the outdoors, but I do think that if we give humans the tools, they can develop our young children into the next generation of innovators and changemakers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. My hope is that with that vision of the future, that at Bricolage and that at all schools around

the country, kids will continue to show up to kindergarten with all of their diverse and unique interests, skills, talents, and personalities. But that in the future, there will be far less diversity in how prepared they are to take advantage of their education, their life, and to fulfill their full human potential. Thank you.