Friday, April 14, 2017

IN: Welcome UPSTART Pre-K Cyberschool

You probably thought this was going to be one of those posts where I made fun of some trend in education by extending it to its logical yet absurd extreme. Sadly-- I mean, really sadly-- that is not the case.

"Seriously, dude. What the hell."

Meet UPSTART, a company that... well, let me just quote from their home page:

UPSTART is an in-home, technology-delivered kindergarten readiness program that gives preschool-aged children individualized reading, math and science instruction with a focus on reading.

How does it work? Participants get a free computer and free internet, in return for which they to spend fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. The program is Personalized Learning for Tiny Humans:

UPSTART is designed for very young children. It uses large buttons, obvious directions, and support that helps children progress. Each child moves through a personalized learning path that is designed to meet his or her skills and needs. The software assesses the child's progress at key milestones to determine what type of instruction each child will receive.

The family receives some training, and a personal care representative is standing by if they need help. Teachers are, of course, unnecessary.

UPSTART has been up and running for a while in Utah. I actually wrote about them back then, and has this explanation for why they were getting the legislative boost:

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?

Here's a promotional video for the program. My favorite parts? Watching a small child try to use a touch pad on a laptop, and the part where we're assured that UPSTART will provide "program sponsors" with data. Because, you know, it's never too early to start building your tiny human's data file, so that the trouble she had picking out vowel sounds when she was four flippin' years old can follow her around for the rest of her life.

In Indiana, the legislature wants to make UPSTART part of the Pre-K expansion bill.

Senator Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, likes it because cyberschooling promotes family togetherness, and that's what many Kids These Days are missing. He said, "This really engages the whole family. I just believe it’s a much more wholesome approach that will have a better lasting effect.” The costs is about $1,400 per pupil (all those freebies mentioned above do cost somebody-- the taxpayers)-- which is a big chunk of money for some learning software. Waterford boast a total 450 hours of lessons, but of course if the learning is personalized, no child will be getting all 450 of those hours, right?. Kenley is the head of the appropriations committee, and a fan of programs like outcomes based funding.

Meanwhile, teachers have spoken out against the proposal:

“Kids need to be together in order to socialize. We need to learn how to raise our hand. We need to learn how to respect other people’s space and time and you can’t do that in front of a computer," American Federation of Teachers Executive Director Sally Sloan said.

Pre-K can be done in so many beneficial ways, but none of those ways are focused on academic achievement.What four year olds need to do is play, play slightly organized games, play unorganized games, play by themselves, play with others, and also play. If they feel inclined to explore reading or math or science or art or whatever, that should be encouraged. But enforced or required. No, no, no, and also no.

Supporters will say, "Lighten up-- we're only talking about fifteen minutes a day, five days a week." And I agree that beats some Pre-K classroom where students are expected to sit and study academic subjects for hours, just as being hit in the face with a hammer is better than being assaulted in the chest with a jackhammer.

But UPSTART also gives tiny humans an early close connection with a screen, introduces them to the idea of learning as a chore that must be done to someone else's satisfaction, and gets the whole family acclimated to being data mined. It's a sweetheart deal of the Utah-based Waterford company which makes out well whenever it can get legislators to purchase its product in bulk. Is this good use of Indiana taxpayer dollars? I doubt it. If I were an Indiana voter and taxpayer, I think I'd seriously question the aims of any Pre-K program, and I think I'd want my tiny humans to be interacting with real live humans, not software.


  1. ...and I'm sure there were absolutely zero efficacy studies on this abusive practice! Thank you, Peter Greene, for keeping us informed!

    1. Actually, there IS one now. Came out about a year ago. To summarize: there is NO change between students who used the program and a control group.

    2. Thanks for the link Jennifer. Your comment surprised me since I had always seen it reported that there was a change in some subjects as far as 4th grade. This is year 9 after all, so I would imagine we have all kinds of data on the children to pick through.

      I followed the provided link and also found the full report.

      After reading over it, I think you may have misread the abstract. The conclusion is that there IS a change between the students enrolled and the control group for math and reading. And no change for vocabulary, and oral comprehension, etc. See the full report for more info. Now obviously there is a lot more to this debate than just academic test scores. I just wanted to clear up the study findings.

  2. Tragic. I remain convinced that 500 years from now, future generations will look back and wonder why we tortured our children.

  3. Indiana grades all of its schools each year, including online schools, on an A-F scale. Literally every online school that tests its students in this state has received an F, every year.

    My own experience as a high school counselor in Indiana is that a student who withdraws from my school to go to an online school always comes back having earned zero credits. Always. And so when they invariably re-enroll, they are even further behind their peers than when they left.

    These families who get suckered into online schooling are almost universally our poorest, most troubled, and most vulnerable families. The families that will sign their children up for UPSTART will be cut from a similar cloth, I'm sure. Families with resources will still be sending their kids to an actual, physical pre-school.

    It's good to see that the many years of outright failure on the part of K-12 online schools in Indiana have taught our state legislature an important lesson.

    Apparently that lesson was that we weren't exposing these kids to technology early enough.

    If UPSTART fails, we can start installing online schools on OB/GYN floors in hospitals. Or maybe we can weave online schooling into lamaze classes.

    1. My sentiments exactly -- sadly. Even at 68 years of age, I think the day may come in my lifetime when prenatal ("personalized education") technology, standards, and accountability will result in some form of "measurable" high-stakes testing being administered at the moment of birth. After all, career and college readiness can't begin too early . . . smh.

  4. I love your blog and am thrilled to see you take this on as a topic. Thank you for giving it more traction... would that Indiana people would care enough to storm the statehouse!