How can the U.S. provide better early childhood education?

Karthik Krishnan

Venture Chair, Redesign Health

Despite strong evidence that early learning is one of the best ways to nurture children’s potential, the US has lagged behind in terms of defining policies and setting up systems to enroll children in quality public early education. Recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how fragile the US early learning system is and how difficult it was for local and federal authorities to prioritize early learning. Overnight, millions of young children and their parents were left without any options, unless they could afford private schools or tutors, increasing further inequalities.

With a new administration in the United States placing a greater emphasis on early childhood education, we asked Karthik Krishnan, the Global Chief Executive Officer of the Britannica Group, what he thinks should happen next, and how businesses and foundations can work with federal and local governments to provide the best start in life for children to build a generation of young people ready for the future.

The new administration has lofty goals for early education, including state-led universal preschool and increased pay and professional development for preschool teachers. Is this too ambitious?

It’s an ambitious plan, but one that is grounded on solid research and with long term societal value-creation in mind. I truly applaud the Biden-Harris administration for the bold and forward leaning vision.

Research indicates that 90% of brain development happens by the age of five. It starts out with the sensory pathway followed by language and high-connective functions. Therefore, it’s easy to say that the brain is most amenable to wiring and rewiring up to the age of five. The earliest experiences a child has will have an enormous effect on the long-term trajectory of the child and will decide whether the child has a sturdy or a fragile foundation for learning, health, and behavior.

When most children show up in school, especially if they come from low and middle-income communities or families that have a less stable environment, they bring significant baggage. Their ability to take advantage of learning opportunities that are provided is marginal. They will end up playing catch-up for most of their lives.

Instead of spending time on intervention and fixing things downstream, we could actually prevent or limit these issues by spending money on early childhood education. Getting this right will bring multiple benefits. First, the impact on the child himself. According to some studies, including from the National Institute for Early Education Research, a high-quality preschool education offsets income-related disadvantages by an estimated 41% in reading and 21% in math. That is a huge impact. Second, the impact on parents. Parents are not able to participate in the economy and able to produce value in the market and they worry about their children falling behind. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 90% of pre-kindergarten education dollar money goes back into the workforce. Last, but not least, the impact on the community and the society. We all know James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics. According to his studies, the rate of return for quality investment in early childhood education is about seven to 10% per annum through better education, health, social mobility, economic productivity, and reduced crime.

Today we are building machines powered by AI [artificial intelligence] that are becoming smarter every single day, and which are increasingly competing against humans for jobs. We cannot afford to lose our edge and leave humans behind. An investment in early childhood education is a winning proposition that has a positive impact on students, parents, and societies. I truly look forward to seeing this vision come to life and shaping the path for individual and societal success.

How can businesses support new ambitions for early childhood education in the US?

Businesses can start out with an employee-centered approach and then expand to community and ESG- [Environmental, Social and Governance] oriented approaches. What do I mean by that? From an employee-centric point of view, businesses can raise awareness and provide learning modules on the importance of early childhood education to new and expecting parents among their employees. They can use these modules to highlight how social, emotional, cognitive, and physical preparation will help their children be ready for kindergarten, and to raise awareness.

This program would be no different from what most businesses do today. Many of us have taken multiple cybersecurity type courses that are provided by the corporation which allow us to understand things to do and not to do. So that training platform already exists. Why not leverage that platform for educating parents and caregivers on the importance of early childhood education and shaping their children’s learning journey?

On top of these awareness-generating opportunities, businesses should also go back and revisit their maternity and parental leave policies in addition to providing flexible hours for parents and childcare givers. This is not a tall ask. The work-from-anywhere culture and mindset that the coronavirus has normalized make it easier to expand these flexible hours for parents and childcare givers in most organizations. When all these initiatives are put in place, they create significant value for employees and build loyalty while improving employees’ and businesses’ productivity.

The second approach is about community orientation. Large organizations with a big presence in certain cities and towns can start early childhood education centers or support the development of early childhood education [ECE] programs in local daycare centers. This could include funding ECE-trained teachers or also introducing new programs into these daycare centers in those communities.

Finally, businesses that are higher up on the Maslow pyramid and think beyond their own employees in their communities, can do two things. First, they can fund ECE or early childhood education research and pilots. Second, they can incubate early childhood education development programs within their organization or launch open innovation challenges. You can ask people to leverage the technology that they are aware of, and their knowledge of society, to develop early learning competencies in communication, social and emotional, using technologies like voice and AI. In doing so businesses can have a positive impact on society by supporting early childhood education in the US.

Are there any incentives for businesses to support early childhood education?

There are compelling incentives today for businesses to commit and drive positive impact with early childhood initiatives. Businesses cannot prosper long-term in a society that is afflicted with poverty, inequality, not-so-great talents, and constrained spending power.

The first incentive for businesses to invest in early childhood education is that it can expand the talents of today’s employee pool for businesses. Parents with young children can not only participate in the workforce but also be more productive, knowing that their children are being well cared for and are being set on a path to success.

The second incentive is that investing in early childhood education helps create a thriving consumer base for a business to sell its products and services. When both parents are working, it raises the standard of living and improves purchasing power, thereby creating a strong demand for the products and services, helping businesses prosper.

The third incentive is that it ensures the long-term future of businesses. Early childhood education ensures that children are better prepared intellectually, socially, and emotionally for the demands of the 21st-century job market. In ensuring their future employability, we are also strengthening their spending power, which in turn will secure the future of these businesses. I am also positive that the Biden-Harris administration will come up with other incentives including tax deductions for employers to encourage maximum business participation and play a proactive role in shaping the path to success for generations to come.

Britannica for parents: Milestones video series

Britannica recently launched a new video series that provides an overview of child growth, learning, and development. Click the following links to watch.Milestones in Cognitive Growth and Brain Development

Milestones in Learning: The Tech Savvy Child

Milestones in Social and Emotional Learning

Milestones in Learning through Play


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