Saturday, October 10, 2015

Utah's Brave New Pre-K World

Utah has decided that pre-school can be delivered as a software package.

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.


  1. Stephenson has been unbelievably damage in to education in Utah. (and he is chairman of the senate education committee)

    Statements like “We want to reach the greatest number of children with the resources that we have,” is typical. The answer is NEVER more resources. (unless he is paying off his supporters.)

  2. I student taught in Utah, the motto remains. "Stack em deep and teach em cheap." And they will have the nerve to blame the teachers. If you are too poor to educate your children you will suffer the greater cost of ignorance. Our current ignorance explains why we let the oligarch take over everything. The people truly do not seem to understand the situation.

  3. First of all, that ABC song sucks to high heaven, and not just because of the inane melody. The little girl is singing too fast and garbling the words as she does so. For that level, you need the singer to sing slowly, and enunciate clearly. Otherwise, the song---to ears and mind of a 2-4 year-old, that is---is just the equivalent of the trombone adult voice from a CHARLIE BROWN cartoon.

    The people who crafted this have ZERO understanding of early childhood education.

    And yeah, the idea that 15 minutes of this computerized folderol will substitute for a half-day (3-4 hours) of actual class time, with a live teacher, and interacting with live peers... is so idiotic that it doesn't deserve comment.

  4. Dear Mr. Greene:

    I read the article that accompanies your article “Utah's Brave New Pre-K World”

    and agree more with the this:

    "Miner (Claudia Miner, a Waterford company vice president who answered the reporter's e-mail about the program.) added that some parents simply are not ready to send their 4-year-olds to school, but they also want help to prepare them for kindergarten. And other families, particularly in Utah, live in such far-flung places that sending their children to a traditional preschool is not realistic or affordable."

    Both of these are actually good points. The article talks about using this program at home on the reservations along the Utah-Arizona border. I have taught on a reservation where some children had a long bus trip to school. I don't think if I was a parent out there, I would want my 4 year old child to take an hour-long (or more!) bus trip to and from the school. Home is a much safer place for children that age, so I actually think an on-line preschool program makes a lot of sense for rural children. But I do agree that the content has been done better on PBS.

    In addition, as far as “being ready for Kindergarten,” I think there could be a discussion about what children are being readied to do. I went back through the materials I researched for my MA in ESL, and here's an article about the Blackfoot Reservation in Idaho. The article is ten years old, and about Idaho instead of Utah, but I doubt in the intervening time anybody quoted in the article has come around to the wisdom of having White People's standardization pushed down their throats:

    The Native American teachers at the school where I worked told me that in the old days, school officials would come around the reservation in a buckboard wagon collecting children to take to Arizona's Indian Schools. The children would be housed at the school, and taught the White Man's ways, such that they knew nothing of their own culture when they came home for school breaks. The people would warn each other when they saw the buckboard coming and the elders would hide the children.

    It was the first Opt-Out Movement.


    1. Even most kids in relatively remote or rural areas have other families living close enough for get-togethers - church, for example - on a weekly basis. Many others have siblings n their own homes with whom they interact regularly. I'd take those as far superior opportunities for social development than 15 minutes a day online - and really, that is the biggest point of HAVING preschool in the first place: the NON-academics!

  5. "Small letters instead of caps" is the ONLY thing I agree they're doing right(ish). Jack Covey is right - every single things about that song is horrible (Early Childhood music specialist here).

  6. I just love the (presumed unintentional) irony in the name UPSTART.

  7. This is seriously disturbing news. And that alphabet song is pure shit. That silly kid is adding a schwa to nearly every consonant. "B" says /b/, NOT "buh"!!!!! Exposure to this drivel could cause confusion, as well as piss poor phonemic awareness for the pre-schoolers of Utah. WTF???

  8. Don't know where my comment went, but gotta correct you, raccoons do indeed reside in Utah, who's your fact checker, and what else is askew?

  9. I have in my possession a racoon footprint of a racoon that walked across our picnic table in the middle of the night while we camped in northern Utah. We have LOTS of racoons here!

    And this type of "preschool" doesn't surprise me at all. Utah is always trying to do education on the cheap.

    1. PLUS, our newest member of the state school board is a lobbyist for a technology firm, so legislators can get money that way, too.