At the Shaw University’s child development center in Raleigh, N.C., a four-year-old boy sat with his preschool teacher one morning, looking at laminated cards featuring pictures of basketball hoops with numbers written on them.
“This is what number?” asked the teacher. “Eleven,” said the young boy, who got a quick cheer from his teacher before he counted out and arranged 11 orange pom-poms just below the hoop. Other children built block towers or made pretend ice cream sundaes nearby.
For the Ebanks family in Utah, preschool looks a little different. At 11 a.m. on weekdays, the boys, a preschooler and a rising kindergartner, log into the computer in their playroom to run through 15 minutes of reading, math and science skills via Upstart, a state-funded academic program. They’ll also spend an hour with their dad, who stays at home, to work on other skills.
“What we saw in that first week is that Upstart really helped us create a structure around my kids’ learning,” said mom Najwa Ebanks, who gave up her older son’s preschool spot a week after using Upstart.
It’s a study in contrasts, but with a similar goal—to prepare kids for kindergarten. And, more often, those efforts look like what the Ebanks are doing. Edtech companies are rushing to serve the youngest kids with online kindergarten readiness tools and virtual preschool programs. ABC Mouse, CHALK Preschool Online and K12 Inc. are among the for-profit companies seeking to capitalize on the .
But it’s Utah-based nonprofit Waterford.org and its Upstart program that, in particular, are drawing criticism from early childhood development advocates and others as it secures government funding and high-profile philanthropic support.
Just as the World Health Organization recommends , some experts say that these virtual programs are the last thing young kids need. Instead, they say, the focus should be on ensuring that all kids have access to a quality, play-based education at brick-and-mortar preschools. Online programs also can’t replace preschools’ roles as childcare facilities, enabling parents to work while their kids are in a safe and enriching environment.
“It’s definitely part of a bigger trend, and it’s part of a, I would say generously, a belief or, cynically, a marketing ploy, where edtech is considered a panacea for all that’s wrong with education,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “… There is a lack of looking for alternatives.”
Andy Myers, Waterford.org’s chief operating officer, doesn’t disagree that kids need access to topnotch preschools. But, he said, he’s focused on serving today’s four-year-olds right now, and there isn’t the funding to ensure every child has a seat.
“It’s a significant challenge both on the individual level, for how we help students become successful, and a policy level about how we put those policies in place to make it happen,” he said. “We are hyper aware that we can’t wait to serve kids until politicians and policy makers figure it out.”
Preschool in America: ‘Uneven and very poor’
Studies consistently show the benefits of preschool for all young children, but especially those from low income families as they enter kindergarten and move along in their academic studies and lives.
The , for example, found that preschool students who were at risk for doing poorly in school, had, by age 40, fewer teen pregnancies, were more likely to graduate from high school, and were more likely to have a job with higher earnings than their peers who didn’t attend preschool.
But many of those children don’t have access to affordable preschool. The annual report found that one-third of four-year-olds and 5.5% of three-year-olds are enrolled in public preschool programs. And funding, it said, is not keeping up with demand.
“Availability is very uneven and very poor overall in the United States,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood expert, co-founder of Defending the Early Years and professor emerita at Lesley University.
Not just about the computer screen
The lack of affordable preschool was the problem Utah leaders challenged Waterford.org to solve after a report identified Utah as one of a handful of states without state-funded preschool. Waterford.org, which already was providing academic software and teacher training at schools across the country, developed Upstart.
Launched in Utah in 2009, Upstart is now expanding across the country thanks to private donations and a growing amount of local, state and federal funding, including a in 2018 to start pilot programs in Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Montana. North Carolina is among the latest states to consider funding for Upstart.
To truly grasp the concept of four, kids must spend time playing with four blocks or four beads or four balls.
In 2019, TED also added Upstart to its , a philanthropic effort that could funnel another $20 million to the program over the next five years and help the nonprofit work toward its goal of launching pilot projects in all 50 states. By next fall, Waterford expects to have 19,500 children in Utah signed up for the free program. It also has received state funding in Indiana and South Carolina and launched Upstart pilot programs in more than a dozen other states.
The term “online preschool,” says Kim Fischer, Waterford.org’s public relations manager, conjures up visions of kids sitting in front of a computer for hours with no engagement. “That is just not us,” she said.
As part of the program, parents are regularly sent information about their child’s strengths and tips to help them shore up any weaknesses. They also have access to printable activity sheets and, soon, a workbook.
To help low-income families, Waterford.org supplies computers and internet access to families without. Right now, it provides nearly 58 percent of its users in Mississippi with internet access.
Myers said Waterford.org wants to complement, not compete, with traditional preschools. It particularly focuses on rural and low-income urban areas where there can be little access to affordable preschools or the transportation necessary to get to them. The goal, he said, is to provide academic enrichment to children who spend their days at home or in a child care setting where caregivers or teachers aren’t equipped to prepare them for kindergarten.
And, Myers points out, that the program has delivered results. According to a , the program had a “strong impact on children’s emerging literacy skills,” and that students who used the program as recommended had better reading outcomes than peers who did not.
Traditional preschools can’t compete
But for early childhood advocates, the growth in programs like Upstart is startling.
In April, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, along with Defending the Early Years, called on The Audacious Project to postpone its plans to include Upstart in its 2019 funding program. The groups warned that expanding funding for the much cheaper online preschool programs could thwart efforts to pay for universal preschool and only widen the gap between kids whose parents can afford quality preschool and those who can’t.
“On a dollar for dollar basis, there is absolutely no way that traditional preschools can compete with something like this,” Golin said.
At the same time, Carlsson-Paige said growth of these online programs only perpetuates a fundamental misunderstanding of how kids need to learn. To understand what the number four means, she said, they can’t just memorize what the numeral looks like on a computer screen. To truly grasp the concept of four, kids must spend time playing with four blocks or four beads or four balls.
“These programs are teaching kids conventional spelling from the get-go and they’re teaching them conventional math from the get-go, so the developmental process of understanding the print system or the numeracy system is lost,” Carlsson-Paige said.
What’s more, online-only programs without the benefit of face-to-face time with trained teachers could isolate young children who might need extra support for learning, speech or motor skills delays.
“That’s an important piece of being in settings where they know children and they can help children and they can give whatever help is needed, which is really important because the early years is the time to intervene,” Carlsson-Paige said.
More than just academics
That’s the kind of education and intervention that’s happening at Shaw’s child development center, which some kids attend with government assistance. There, the social-emotional growth of the students is just as important as their reading and math capabilities, director Freida Dixon said.
In the entryways to some classrooms, children sign in by writing their names, but also by moving a clothespin with their picture on a board to indicate whether they’re feeling “sad,” “happy” or “frustrated” that day.
If an online program was all that was available to a child, Dixon said it might be better than nothing. But reading and math achievement isn’t what kindergarten teachers tell her they want when kids enter the classroom. “If they can follow directions, sit still—those are the focus of the kindergarten teacher,” she said.
Parent involvement also will be critical for children using these online programs, she said. “You have parents that participate with their children and parents who don’t.”
At the Ebanks home in Utah, the parents are involved. Najwa Ebanks said the boys always sit with her or her husband when they do Upstart. Today, their rising kindergartner is reading well, and their preschooler can identify letters and numbers. Ebanks has no regrets about pulling her son from preschool. In fact, they’ll continue to homeschool in the fall.
“They are where they are now because of the combination of what they’re doing with Upstart and what Upstart provides,” she said, “and also what we do with them.”
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