The world’s richest man says he wants to help tackle one of the biggest issues in education: improving early-childhood learning.
But what exactly does Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos mean when he says the new network of nonprofit preschools he’s planning will be “Montessori inspired,” and will “use the same set of principles” that have pushed his giant online retail and cloud-computing company toward a $1 trillion valuation?
Experts in the fields of early childhood, the business of education, and ed tech confess to not being sure.
“I really have no idea,” said Trace Urdan, the managing director of investment-consulting firm Tyton Partners. “We’re all just imposing our predispositions onto the whole thing.”
Here’s what we do know: Bezos and his wife MacKenzie are contributing $2 billion to establish the philanthropic Bezos Day One Fund. The effort will have two main thrusts: launching and operating new preschools in underserved communities, and tackling homelessness among young families. And further details? “Stay tuned,” Amazon vice president of corporate communications Drew Herdener told Education Week.
For some observers, Bezos’ big areas of focus are reason enough for optimism.
Take, for example, W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. He said the new fund’s potentially massive commitment to early-childhood education speaks to the growing recognition of the problems presented by a lack of equitable access to high-quality preschool programs.
“In the vast majority of communities, the government response has not been adequate,” Barnett said.
But for others, the lack of details in Bezos’ announcement, combined with the dark sides of Amazon’s meteoric ascent, are cause for skepticism.
Consider, for example, the company’s reliance on low-wage workers who often require public assistance to make ends meet, wrote education-technology researcher Audrey Watters in a recent essay. That’s a potentially dangerous model for the preschool sector, where a mostly female workforce is already significantly underpaid, she contended.
“Honestly, [Bezos] could have a more positive impact here by just giving those workers a raise. (Or, you know, by paying taxes),” Watters wrote.
There also remain lots of questions as to whether Amazon’s data-heavy, algorithm-driven model of customer service has a place in classrooms of 3- and 4-year olds.
And leading researchers say when it comes to Montessori education, the devil is in the details.
Staff writer Benjamin Herold contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2018 edition of Education Week as Jeff Bezos’ Pre-K Move Sparks Wary Reactions