Social Entrepreneurs Offer New Thinking on Old Challenges in Early Childhood

For more than half a century, early childhood advocates have worked tirelessly to inform parents and policymakers about the importance of children's early years. This work appears to have paid off: enrollment in publicly-funded pre-k programming has nearly doubled since 2002, and a poll released last week indicates that approximately 9 of 10 likely voters in the United States agree that "the years from birth to 5 are extremely or very important to the learning and development of a child". For the first time, early childhood development and education have been incorporated as targets in the United Nation's international development agenda, with advocates citing young children as the "common basis for all dimensions of sustainable development."

Innovation and the Role of Social Entrepreneurs

Rather than declaring victory, some in the early childhood community have responded to this growing consensus with an increased focus on using innovation to drive more effective policies and programs. "We can and need to do better," says Jack Shonkoff, M.D., director of the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. To achieve greater impact for children, says Dr. Shonkoff, "we must think beyond the status quo and provide greater support for the rapid-cycle sharing, iteration, and learning from failure that drive breakthrough change in other fields." A fledgling movement of early childhood scholars, policymakers, and practitioners is heeding this call, experimenting with novel, innovative approaches for funding early childhood services, building caregivers' skills, and identifying children at risk for adversity.

Innovation fever - and the potential funding that comes with it - has attracted a new generation of social entrepreneurs. Drawing on business principles and wide-ranging experiences across diverse fields, social entrepreneurs create flexible, self-sustaining (and sometimes even profitable) enterprises for which the bottom line is social change rather than dollars and cents. Over the last decade, social entrepreneurs have offered game-changing approaches to finance , energy , and health .

Social entrepreneurs are now posed to make a big impact on global early care and education. This summer, the Hult Prize Accelerator sponsored six teams of entrepreneurial university students from around the world to develop scalable and sustainable approaches to support the development of young low-income children. The projects proposed by these teams offer represent exciting new approaches to long standing challenges for the early childhood field. A group from Oxford University designed educational laundromats that combine efficient, low-cost washing services with intensive training for parents in effective reading practices. Students from National Chengchi University have launched a social investment platform to connect investors with informal childcare providers seeking to improve quality and expand the reach of their programs. Other teams are developing plans that leverage the growing ubiquity of mobile telephones to expand evidence-based home visiting services, promote stimulating parent-child interactions, or help non-literate parents to engage in daily reading with their children. Next week, a panel that includes prominent business leaders, a Nobel Laureate, and a former head of state will award one of these teams with $1 million to launch their project. This winning project will join a growing number of social enterprises that are currently working to support young children and their families across the globe.

New Ideas Are Not Enough

As innovative entrepreneurial efforts such as these gain momentum, it will be increasingly important to rigorously evaluate their effectiveness and clearly delineate their role in the broader early childhood movement. New ideas will only be helpful if they can both be proven effective relative to existing approaches and integrated into existing social support structures. Whereas social enterprise may be well equipped to drive innovation, ensuring that all children have access to affordable health care, nutritious food, high quality early care and education, and safe, stable communities must remain a shared public responsibility. And although social enterprise is adept at developing and testing new ideas, taking risks, learning from failures, and iterating rapidly, the vast systems run by governments are necessary for achieving impact at scale.

By emphasizing their respective strengths, collaborations between government and social enterprise can benefit larger numbers of disadvantaged children than have been reached until this point. As was summarized by a recent UNICEF report outlining the role of public-private partnerships in supporting education, "[t]his is not an ideological question or a question of favouring one type of provision over another. Rather, it is a question of leveraging the skills and comparative advantage of the public and non-state sectors in a way that enhances the extent and quality of service delivery to the poor."

Breakthroughs in our understanding of the developing brain, converging evidence from program evaluation, and a growing political consensus regarding the unique developmental potential of young children make this an extraordinarily powerful moment for early education policy and practice. Social entrepreneurs bring critical and fresh perspectives on how to support young children and their families that can help to address some of the world's most stubborn challenges. Nevertheless, even the most clever and innovative entrepreneurial solutions will be of little help in tackling large-scale problems without robust evaluation and social support. In a world that is thirsty for sustainable approaches to ensuring all children's developmental potential, uniting the experience and resources of government with the innovation and ingenuity of social entrepreneurs may provide a promising recipe for positive change.

Todd Grindal, Ed.D is a researcher with Abt Associates Inc, where he studies how public policies impact young children and children with disabilities. @Grindato

Dana Charles McCoy, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research examines the links between poverty and early childhood development domestically and internationally.