Pre-K is getting a lot of media attention lately, whether it’s De Blasio’s call for tax increases to fund pre-K in New York City, states growing their budgets to accommodate more pre-K seats, or, of course, Obama’s call for more federal funding for early childhood education. Enthusiasm for pre-K surges once in awhile, so it’s hard to say whether momentum will wane as it has in previous years. This cycle of pre-K déjà vu was not lost on President Obama during his State of the Union address: “Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every 4-year-old,” he noted. “And as a parent as well as a President, I repeat that request tonight.”
Rather than simply categorizing pre-K as an annual battleground for public dollars, at the Christensen Institute we think about pre-K in pretty specific terms: nonconsumption. The nearly half (46 percent) of children ages 3 and 4 in the U.S. who aren’t enrolled in pre-K constitute nonconsumers of early childhood educational services and care. Even more nonconsumption exists in the age 0-3 space. Disruptive innovations often get their start by targeting pockets of nonconsumption and then improving over time to serve more and more demanding customers. That’s why the earliest personal computers were actually sold to computer nonconsumers like kids and hobbyists who could never have afforded the minicomputers that companies and governments used for advanced computing, but were delighted to tinker with a cheaper, simpler personal computer. Once companies like Apple got a foothold among these nonconsumers, it was only a matter of time before they improved personal computer technology to serve more and more demanding customers and disrupted the computing industry as we knew it. Given the vast nonconsumption of pre-K in the U.S., this may offer a promising starting point from which to disrupt education as we know it.
To successfully serve nonconsumers, though, we must understand their “job to be done.” Numerous articles weigh in on the political and academic debates about funding universal pre-K, but the more interesting and basic question at hand is what we’re asking of pre-K. There are a panoply of “jobs” we might “hire” a pre-K program to perform for families: the job of providing dependable custodial services for working parents; the job of preparing students for elementary school by focusing on high impact areas like early vocabulary exposure; the job of keeping young children healthy during their early years of development. A successful disruptive innovation will figure out a precise “job to be done” among parents in the pre-K space and then target the swaths of parents or caregivers currently not accessing early childhood services at a price point and with a degree of convenience that is attractive to their circumstances.
A few disruptive plays may add color to this concept:
A foothold for instructional products. Last December, Education Week reported that the pre-K edtech market alone went from $0 in reported revenues to $14 million [in what time frame?]. Technology for very young children is not without critics—particularly around screen time concerns. But as Alex Hernandez points out, apps for young children may be making an interesting play in the edtech market. Hernandez argues that early childhood apps are well poised to incorporate insights from learning sciences into their approaches. Significantly, because these are typically marketed directly to parents, players in this space don’t have to accord with the factory-based school models and bureaucratic procurement processes to which K-12 edtech products are typically beholden. Products that can successfully reach parents may be able to develop innovative instructional methods and technology platforms that eventually find traction among more demanding K-12 school districts.
Technologies to engage parents. Much of the literature on the vocabulary gap and early childhood development is undergirded with concepts of effective parenting. Harlem Children’s Zone’s Baby College aimed to arm parents with better information on how to aid their children’s development and set them up for success in school. Technology may make this sort of information more widely acceptable to parents at a lower cost. Programs such as Parent University, which delivers developmentally appropriate activities to parents’ phones, may help parents in supporting their children’s development in low cost and convenient ways. If a technology or program could successfully reach parents in pre-K, it might have an upmarket opportunity to likewise serve as an engagement and communication tool for parents throughout the education system, or even as a content delivery platform in schools.
Sharing technologies to share resources. Disruptive innovations in education aren’t just about online educational content, but could consist of any technology that makes a product or service cheaper, more accessible, and more foolproof. Besides content or parenting tools directly built to serve pre-K customers, a platform for sharing resources and coordinating services within communities could boost access to early childhood care and education. There is a burgeoning market of businesses building on sharing economies. These businesses use technology platforms to facilitate peer-to-peer rentals or sharing through businesses like city bikeshares, Airbnb, or GoodShuffle. Taken in the pre-K context, an enabling technology to facilitate sharing could expand access to sharing and coordinating childcare or educational resources at a low transaction cost. This platform could then grow to serve all sorts of community renting, sharing, or coordinating functions.
As the pre-K debate rages on in op-ed columns, we might do better to think about that 46 percent of 3 and 4 year olds and conceive of pre-K investment in broader terms: an opportunity to foster disruptive innovations that could change the way we think about childcare, parenting, and education.