Lifting children’s economic prospects through technology

In March 2016, Forbes reported there were 159 technology billionaires, and four of the 10 richest people in the world made their money in the tech sector. We believe there are opportunities for these technology developers to play a differential role in philanthropy — one that brings together their ability to invest wisely and their acumen for using technology to change the world.

Which types of technology-enabled interventions and tools most help to support healthy development and are worth big philanthropic bets is the subject of our latest research. We are advocating for targeted investments of $1 billion that can have profound social impacts — in this case, boosting early childhood education (ECE) to bolster upward mobility. From our research, early returns on some ECE tech-supported programs are promising, and the need for such solutions clear.

The early childhood development crisis facing the United States

Nationwide, 5.8 million children, from birth to age five, are not on track to succeed when they begin kindergarten. Put another way, in any given year, 1 million low-income five-year-olds are not fully ready when they arrive at kindergarten. They lack the cognitive skills, physical development and social and emotional maturity to succeed in a formal learning environment. Many come from English learner households and lack fluency in their language of instruction, and fall short on literacy, which impacts learning mindsets.

Starting from behind makes it much harder to catch up. Children who enter kindergarten developmentally ready are significantly more likely to master basic skills by the third grade than those who are not school ready (82 percent versus 45 percent). This is the beginning of a yawning outcome gap over a lifetime. Performing at grade level by the third grade makes it more likely that the child will go on to graduate from high school.

Evidence shows that high-quality tech-enabled tools, if used correctly, can indeed improve a student’s cognitive skills.

While socioeconomic status is the primary determinant of a child’s kindergarten readiness, race and ethnicity compound a low-income child’s disadvantage. The two groups facing the greatest disadvantages in math and reading are black students and Hispanic English language learners, where differences in cultural perception can affect how parents and teachers view a child’s social and emotional skills.

How technology can improve early childhood outcomes

There are significant bodies of research that tell us a great deal about what it takes to ensure that a child is ready for kindergarten. Children from birth to age five should have positive, caring interactions and relationships with the adults in their lives in every setting — from home to community to school. Adults in all of these settings should know what an individual child needs, and have the capacity to help that child fully develop. Adults also should work together across all settings to ensure a cohesive, shared approach to supporting that child.

This is a tall order, but the benefits to children — and the country — would be immense.

Some promising tech solutions include the kind of text-messaging services that young mothers in underprivileged situations have already begun to use. For instance, Text4baby is a free educational mobile-phone service sponsored by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. It works with some 700 partners, including an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, to promote its use.

Private funders have the unique ability to provide the kind of high-risk initial capital that’s off limits to most government agencies.

Pregnant women and new mothers receive tips three times a week on how to have a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. The text messages are timed to the pregnant woman’s due date or the baby’s birth date. Subjects cover a gamut: breastfeeding, car-seat safety, developmental milestones, emotional well-being, exercise and fitness, immunizations, labor and delivery, nutrition, prenatal care, safe sleep and smoking cessation. The text messages also provide 1-800 numbers and other resources to learn more. Rolled out in 2010, more than 281,000 women had enrolled within the first two years and 96 percent said they’d recommend the service to a friend.

For moms with preschoolers there’s Ready4K, another text-messaging service that’s targeted at helping parents prepare their children for kindergarten. Each week during the school year, parents receive a trio of texts about important kindergarten readiness skills.

The text provider cites the following example script:

FACT: Bath time is great for teaching your child important skills for K. Start by asking: What are the things we need for bath time? Why?

TIP: When you’re bathing your child, point out the letters on shampoo bottles. Ask your child to name them & the sounds they make.

GROWTH: Keep using bath time to prepare your child 4K! Ask: What rhymes with tub (cub, rub), soap (rope, hope), & bubble (double, trouble)?

Developed at Stanford University, the Ready4K text messages are based on child development research and linked to state educational standards. They are also effective. In a San Francisco study, parents using Ready4K text messages engaged far more frequently in learning activities at home with their children than parents who did not receive the texts. Ready4K parents were also more involved at school, according to teachers. Overall, a 2014 York & Loeb study found that children of parents who received Ready4K texts gained two to three additional months of learning in important areas of literacy.

Why now is the time for philanthropists to invest in early childhood technologies

Evidence shows that such high-quality tech-enabled tools, if used correctly, can indeed improve a student’s cognitive skills, and thus academic performance, by 0.21 standard deviations on average. The Social Genome Model has calculated that if a kindergartener improves their basic cognitive level by this amount, they will see an increase in lifetime family income of $15,800.

Let’s push the math to assume that over the five formative years, the new suite of technology-enabled tools can reach the primary caregivers of 10 million children who are not on track to be kindergarten ready. If only 3.5-7 percent of these children achieve the necessary academic outcomes by kindergarten, approximately 350,000 to 700,000 more children would enter kindergarten ready to learn. Bottom line: a cumulative increase in lifetime earnings of $5.5 billion to $11 billion.

That’s a big payback from $1 billion, and we believe that philanthropy is ideally suited as the source. Private funders have the unique ability to provide the kind of high-risk initial capital that’s off limits to most government agencies. Such investments will require patient capital and funders with longer-term views.

Our hope is that more philanthropists see how they can create significant social change by investing in the very industry that brought them such success.

Editor’s note: The three authors co-authored or contributed to the study “Billion Dollar Bets” to Increase Early Childhood Development.