Dr. Elanna Yalow is Chief Executive Officer for Knowledge Universe (KU) Early Learning Programs and a member of the Board of Directors of Knowledge Universe. She also serves as Professor of Early Childhood Education at the Asian International College, an institution for higher learning and teacher education in Singapore. As the largest private early childhood education provider in the United States, Knowledge Universe plays a critical role in preparing our youngest children for school and a lifelong love of learning.
Foundation: What’s the biggest challenge facing education today?
Yalow: What many educators and families face is a tremendous achievement gap before children even enter kindergarten. Too often that gap continues to grow throughout the early primary school years and leads to children unable to attain third grade benchmarks. These children are at risk of continuing to fall behind their peers. The good news is, studies show that by age 15, children who attended early childhood education programs perform better academically and cognitively (2010 study by the National Institute of Early Child Care and Youth Development). Children who receive a high quality early childhood education have been shown to narrow this achievement gap and yield long-term benefits. Access to quality early childhood education is the most cost-effective way to make sure children are ready and able to succeed in school and in life. !ese programs aren’t just a stop-gap; they’re an effective solution to a real problem.

Foundation: How can private sector leadership change education for the better?

Yalow: There are many examples of successful public-private partnerships in support of education, including early childhood education. These mixed-delivery systems allow for every family to benefit by drawing on the strengths of each program and providing more options for parents. When it comes to private providers of Early Childhood Education, we play an important role in the overall landscape of choices for parents. The private sector offers a unique
contribution to the field by having the nimbleness to innovate. The educational landscape changes as quickly as our lives change, and it is our goal to prepare children with versatile skills as a platform for a successful life – both in school and after. With the ability to stay on the cutting edge of curriculum content and teaching techniques, private providers help share those best practices with the whole field of ECE. We might be different in some structural ways, but all high quality providers—whether public or private—are focused on delivering great experiences to children and families. We really are all in this together.

Foundation: Why is the private sector role important to delivering pre-K instruction to students?
Yalow: The vast majority of preschool-aged children in the U.S. are currently served by private providers, and are already an important and significant part of
a mixed-delivery model that offers families choices. That expertise and capacity provides a tremendous amount of opportunity for leadership in the field, which infuses all our work with better practices and serves to strengthen the quality of care for all. Continuity is as important as choice. Private providers are able to provide a continuity of care by serving children from early infancy through the elementary years. This ‘seamless continuum’ of care from zero to 8 years of age is critical for social and academic success later in life (Leila Fiester, Early Warning Confirmed, 2013). We also know that the first three years of childhood are some of the most important for a child’s synapse formation (Charles A. Nelson, From Neurons to Neighborhoods, 2000). Providing a comprehensive early childhood education experience for children during these formative years sets them up for increased academic success.

Foundation: Why is the business community’s voice in the pre-K discussion so important?
Yalow: The business community knows that children are the future of our workforce. They see every day the rapid evolution of skills needed for competitiveness across industries. There is nothing in the field of education that yields better return on investment than the impact of early childhood. Children who attended early childhood education programs are more likely to graduate high school, go on to post-secondary education, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities (2010 study by the National Institute of Early Child Care and Youth Development).
Businesses have a vested interest in understanding workforce needs of the 21st century. Not only are they committed to building the workforce of tomorrow, but they understand that ECE is an important part of their workers’ lives today. Many employers know that it makes strong business sense to support their employees’ childcare needs to beneficially impact recruitment and retention.
The business community can also play an important role in bringing visibility to important, societal issues such as access to high quality education.

Foundation: What is the return on investment in pre-K programs?

Yalow: Long-term longitudinal studies like Perry Preschool and the North Carolina Abecedarian Project show rates of return somewhere between seven and
10 percent on prekindergarten programs. There is consensus that the rate of return is significantly higher on prekindergarten programs than for traditional investments, and that the earlier we invest in children the greater the return. Nobel Laureate James Heckman attributes the high rate of return to the fact that “skill begets skill” and notes that society as well as individual children benefit from investments in high quality early childhood education. In the short term, high-quality early childhood education results in lower expenditures for remedial education and creates a higher parent productivity level at work. In the long term, high quality early childhood education is associated with increased graduation rates, reduced rates of teen pregnancy, reduced drug and alcohol abuse, reduced likelihood of incarceration, and higher rates of employment, savings, and lifetime earnings.

Foundation: Which states are leaders in early childhood education?

Yalow: Georgia, New Jersey, Illinois, and Oklahoma were early leaders in early childhood education, but many states are starting to catch up. Each of these states have made concentrated efforts to invest in pre-kindergarten systems which focus on enrollment as early as 3 years of age and provide a mixed delivery system and choice for families. They track success along quality and Common Core State Standards also used by the private sector, and have made strides to benchmark their efforts with assessment. In early childhood education, it is relatively easy for a state to move from the back of the pack to the front, so many states like Pennsylvania, Delaware, Wisconsin, and Washington are developing innovative new programs in response to the growing awareness of the impact of investing in this age group.

Foundation: What’s the biggest change we will see in education over the next decade?
Yalow: In time, early childhood education will become the norm, rather than the exception and, with that growth, will come challenges. In response to the
challenges facing K-12 and our future workforce needs, we are making the necessary investments in our next generation. We are honored and excited to be a part of this changing landscape because we have already provided many families with high quality care and can leverage our extensive experience. 
At Knowledge Universe we’ve seen for decades the impact of this work for children and our community. As the field expands and becomes more visible, we’ll see stronger programs and stronger results by building a network of accountability and expertise. With a greater network of peers, all providers will be challenged to be better for our communities’ children.

Foundation: What teacher and class inspired you to be doing what you do today?

Yalow: My inspiration did not specifically come from one of my teachers, but I was inspired when I was getting my MBA at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford. I had previously received my doctorate in education (also from Stanford) and had worked in education for several years. My older son was born at the beginning of my second year in the MBA program, and I faced the same challenges that many new moms face -- trying to find quality care for their children while pursuing their professional careers. While I was extremely fortunate to be able to balance these goals, I was inspired to seek a career that allowed me to apply my expertise in education with my then newly acquired business skills. I have been incredibly fortunate to have a career that has allowed me to spend my professional time working to improve the lives of children and families.