At Omidyar Network, we look at the transformative power of technology to help solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. And with our investments in US education, we are seeking to address what we believe is one of the world’s most pressing issues: One-third of children are entering kindergarten not ready. How can we support early childhood entrepreneurs to catalyze quality early learning, so that every child will reach his or her full potential?

Watch "Educators, Entrepreneurship, & Early Learning" now

Platforms are changing the entire world around us as technology enables a dramatic reduction in intermediaries and allows customers to connect more seamlessly with providers of goods and services. A recent study from Upwork and the Freelancers Union showed that 36 percent of the US working population engages in independent work, and digital platforms are blurring the lines between independent workers and small business owners, and could even fundamentally change the way we think about corporate structure and hierarchy altogether. Independent workers are expected to be the majority of the workforce in the US by 2027.

At Omidyar Network, we look at the transformative power of technology to help solve some of the world’s most challenging problems. And with our investments in US education, we are seeking to address what we believe is one of the world’s most pressing issues — high-quality early childhood experiences. As our world of work continues to rapidly evolve, the only way to ensure success for our next generation is by setting a solid foundation today.

We know that 85 percent or more of brain development takes place in the first five years of life. Yet our current formal education system begins after these vital formative years, and we devote little in the way of resources on an organized national or state level to education and care of young children. We also grossly undervalue the early childhood workforce. In addition to having limited professional development and often substandard working conditions, we pay childcare workers on par with parking lot attendants in the bottom 3 percent of American earners, and even with a bachelor’s degree, early childhood workers will have the lowest lifetime earnings of any college major.

The early childhood system, or lack thereof, is highly fragmented. Children move across different environments in their first five years, and whether it’s in their home or in the care of this underpaid workforce, most settings lack consistent quality. As a result, one-third of children are entering kindergarten not ready, and less than half of children from low-income families enter kindergarten ready. The quality of programs is so variable that even among children from high-income families, a quarter arrive unprepared. Millions of kids begin their life journey hopelessly behind.

Yet, there is reason to be optimistic. Following the trends toward more autonomous, independent work and more seamless connections between providers and consumers, while leveraging technology as an enabler, we have the potential to meaningfully impact early childhood education. Using the best of what we’ve learned in the sharing and freelance economies, we can empower even greater numbers of educators, caregivers, and parents to deliver quality care and education to our youngest learners.

We need to adopt an innovative solution; making gradual improvements to the old approach will be insufficient. By supporting early childhood entrepreneurs, we can catalyze a wide range of options for quality early learning for young families. We are already seeing examples of applications of the sharing and freelancing economies that are fundamental to this new ecosystem.

Flexible Working Arrangements

Today millions of workers value the flexibility of working when they want. Companies like Tinkergarten are leveraging that trend, connecting parents with trained leaders who focus on education through outdoor play. In three years, Tinkergarten has grown from two founders leading classes in a single Brooklyn park to a nationwide offering with over 1,000 trained leaders, and thousands of applicants for leader positions every month.

Asset-Sharing for Education

Wonderschool works with experienced educators to help them start their own childcares and preschools out of their homes. Similar to Airbnb, they apply the sharing economy principle of leveraging an underutilized asset to start new programs with minimal overhead. Teachers focus on the education and care while Wonderschool assists with the business aspects of licensing, program setup, and marketing. They also provide a community of practice for otherwise typically isolated educators.

Reducing Hierarchy and Overhead with a Distributed Model

As we think about the potential for early childhood, we should learn from the K-12 education system, and seek to empower teachers and reduce administration and overhead costs. Wildflower Schools is working to address these issues by creating a set of decentralized Montessori micro-schools that are small and teacher-led, focused on the needs of the local student community. The person closest to the parent, child, and community is also the decision-maker. Technology solutions from Wildflower help teachers to both start and manage these schools more efficiently and support better observation of children’s activities and learning.

There are even more ways in which we can borrow successful approaches from the application of platforms in other sectors to build this new ecosystem. With them, we have the opportunity to transform early childhood education and allow every child to reach his or her full potential.

This talk incorporates research and data from Achieving Kindergarten Readiness for All Our Children: A Funder’s Guide to Early Childhood Development from Birth to Five (The Bridgespan Group), Starting School at a Disadvantage: The School Readiness of Poor Children (Brookings Institution), and University of Chicago Professor James Heckman’s work with The Heckman Equation.