As reported Emma Brown in yesterday's Washington Post, the state has decided-- with the generous financial assistance of the federal government-- to try shrinking the entire pre-school experience into fifteen minutes a day of computer time.
You get an idea of the kind of thinking involved here when you see the name-- Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow! UPSTART!! In it, children will deal with a series of games, songs and lessons, aided by two cartoon raccoons named Rosy and Rusty (fun fact: Utah is one of the few states in the US where raccoons do not live). [Update: One of the hundreds of new things I've learned this week is that while all sorts of sources say that raccoons are not a US Southwest thing, raccoons are totally alive and well in Utah and other nearby places. There's a lesson there about raccoons and authoritative sources.]
Why has Utah decided to launch this brave new world in which fifteen minutes of computer-and-mouse-time (because if there's anything three- and four-year-olds are great at, it's operating a computer mouse)? Well, Utah is one of ten states that doesn't fund pre-school, and it is at the bottom of the barrel for per-student funding in K-12. So you could explain the appeal of this idea as the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Howard A. Stephenson, does:
“We want to reach the greatest number of children with the resources that we have,” Stephenson said. “I don’t think we’re being cheap at all. We’re being smart.”
Or you might go with this theory:
“It’s wishful thinking by state legislatures,” said Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “We want preschool, we want to get these great results, but we don’t actually want to spend the money.”
Yeah, why provide expensive high-quality preschool when you can just sign everyone up for some software?
On the one hand, the whole idea is horrifyingly dumb, presuming that fifteen minutes with a computer will reap the same benefits as a program with social interactions and human-based playtime. On the other hand-- did these guys just re-invent Sesame Street? Brown takes an extraordinarily gentle hand in her article, she notes that many early-childhood experts say that interaction and socialization, particularly through play, are critical elements in a pre-school program, to which Brown says this:
It is not clear whether or how an online learning program can teach those kinds of skills; evaluations of Upstart have not measured what children learn in that realm.
Yeah, that's an easy one. What the UPSTART program teaches small children about social skills is absolutely nothing at all. And while UPSTART claims to address the issue a little, mostly they don't really care:
Claudia Miner, a Waterford vice president, said Upstart officials teach parents how they can bolster their children’s social skills. But she said that lawmakers are most interested in the program’s potential effect on literacy. “You don’t measure social skills in third grade; you measure reading skills,” she said in an e-mail.
Let's go look.
From the moment you hit the UPSTART website, things do not look good. There are a couple of demo videos, right up there in the corner by the picture of a nine-year-old boy happily sitting at a computer. Let's look at the one about the alphabet and--oh, boy. Where Sesame Street always had the wisdom to sell us the alphabet one letter at a time, this song hits the whole list. It uses "small" letters instead of caps, and it references iguanas, valentines and flapjacks. And the tune is not exactly catchy.
On youtube, this is an "early reading" resource. The math demo is a bit better, with undead seagulls (the animation, almost five years old, is a little sad) singing about zero to the tune of the Banana Boat Song, a tune often used to great effect.
There's also a testimonial reel featuring a whole bunch of very happy white moms (okay, it's Utah, but seriously-- no men or non-white folks care about their kids education?) The theme here is that having children who can complete academic tasks at a young age is really awesome. Feel free to insert the entire discussion about how having your child recite the alphabet at age two has no long term benefits at all. Plus you get the classic "I was clueless" thread, where mothers had no idea what to do with their child until the programmed opened up their world. I'm more interested in the mom who says her child is now addicted to learning, which may be true albeit alarming, but I'd lay odds that what the child is addicted to is playing video games on the computer.
The entire program is the creation of Waterford Learning, a Salt Lake City company that has been in the education materials K-2 game for about thirty years, so I'm sure this expansion seems like a natural to them. But the idea of plunking kids as young as two in front of a computer screen strikes me as just such a bad idea, particularly when the benefits are so tenuous and probably non-existent. On the other hand, all we're really talking about is a little around-the-house tutoring program, so parent judgment will have to rule. Letting a screen get your kid ready for school really is as old as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (with the exception that Sesame Street and Fred Rogers really did try to address socialization issues with kids).
There are some potential side benefits. Brown reports that Waterford has supplied some parents with laptop computers, internet hookups, and in the case of some very isolated families, solar panels to power the whole business. That's not nothing,
But to do all this and claim that you are providing pre-school for students in your state is just silly. Why not hand out coupons for discounts at MacDonalds and call that your school lunch program, or set up log-ins for all high school students on Sparknotes and call that your high school English program? Maybe every Utah high school grad could be given a copy of Animal House and that could count as going to college.
What prompted Utah to try this, beyond their epic cheapness when it comes to education? Well, along with missing the habitat information about raccoons (sloppy, WaPo-- sloppy), and failing to actually look at the program's website, Brown also forgot to mention that State Senator Stepehnson's district includes Salt Lake City, home of Waterford HQ. So the senator is fulfilling a good traditional legislative duty-- bringing home the bacon for the good folks who helped put him in office. Utah is going to pay about $5.3 million this year. That should be more than enough to help the good folks at Waterford Learning enroll their own kids in a high quality pre-school where live humans interact with small humans in a rich, socialized, play-filled environment.