Monday, September 9, 2019

Online Pre-K Continues To Spread Like A Big Stupid Plague

So this article pops up on my screen-- the Hechinger Report's Bracey Harris asking "Can 15 minutes a day of online preschool help prepare a child for kindergarten?" I might have suggested a rewrite on the headline, something along the line of  "Why in the name of all that's holy are you putting a four-year-old child in front a screen and subjecting her to kindergarten prep software!"

Stop farting around and get to work kid
Look, I'll warn you right up front-- long time readers of this blog will not find me saying anything here that I have not said before, but 1) I'm pretty sure most of this should be repeated daily until it sinks into certain skulls because 2) this is a terrible idea that stands on the shoulders of other terrible ideas and every time it shows up wrapped in uncritical boosterfluff like this I get the kind of angry that I can best work off by hammering these keys. I am even going to bold things, because dammit, I've got a pair of two-year-olds napping fifteen feet away from me, and this bullshit has got to stop.

Focused on Mississippi, Harris's piece contains most of the classic features of what is unfortunately becoming a genre. For instance, a mis-framing of the problem--

Of the more than 35,000 Mississippi kindergarten students who took the state’s skills assessment last fall, about 64 percent scored below the state’s readiness benchmark. Since then, the state has made few strides in expanding efforts to help more of its youngest children prepare for school.

If most of your state's five year olds are not ready for your kindergarten program, then it is the kindergarten program that is messed up. It is not a small child's job to get ready for school-- it is the school's job to get ready for that child. It is not the family's job to meet the needs of the school-- it is the school's job to meet the needs of that family. 

This is the legacy of No Child Left Behind and its bastard cousins and children. One of the effects of the accountability movement has been to turn schools upside down, to flip the school student relationship. In the flipped relationship, the school (and the state) need students to be generators of reliably high test scores, and so, in the accountability-flipped school, we do not ask students, "What do you need? How can we help you?" Instead we ask each other, "How can we get these kids to cough up an acceptable score?" And part of that answer has been, consistently, to try to get to them sooner, to start them ASAP, so that we can get them ready for the third grade literacy test that gets them ready for the state-issued reading and math Big Standardized Test and so on and so on. Can't let these little slackers just sit around and play and waste time and stuff-- we need to get them ready so that kindergarten can be the new first or second or third grade so that we can get them more ready sooner even though there isn't a damned bit of evidence that getting more ready sooner has any beneficial long term effect whatsoever but plenty of evidence that it's bad for the children. But hey-- as long as we can squeeze some good scores out of them.

This particular article is plugging UPSTART, an online program that started out in Utah, where it did the double duty of providing some semblance of pre-school at much lower costs than backing actual pre-school would have cost, as well as pushing what money the state did spend into the coffers of a Utah company in the district of the legislator who sponsored the bill adopting UPSTART for the state.

From there it has spread like poison ivy, especially to corporate-reform-friendly states like Ohio and Indiana. It's currently in 532 districts and independent schools. The program itself is essentially Personalized [sic] Learning for very tiny people. From their website

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 program (and the computer that delivers it) are free, courtesy of UPSTART's many partners, which include the New Schools Venture Fund, TED, Comcast, Intel, and Raspberry.

The Hechinger piece is a classic fluff sandwich-- about 2/3rds of the way down, an opposing view is given one sentence before we get back to the happy fluff about this awesome idea. The opposing view that Harris scoots past is a statement issued jointly by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood that seriously lambasted this practice (and which Hechinger did cover at the time). Harris mentions that "some experts" have misgivings, but makes no attempt to report those concerns in detail or examine their validity. The statement offered plenty of research and reports to back up their objections; here are must a few of the highlights:

"All children should have access to high-quality, fully funded preschool," said Diane Levin, Professor of Early Childhood Education, at Boston University's Wheelock College. "Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years. Further, online preschools are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities in early education by giving low-income children superficial exposure to rote skills and ideas while more privileged children continue to receive developmentally sound experiences that provide a solid foundation for later academic success.”

“Allowing tech companies to push online preschools will lead to further marginalization of low-income families who already lack access to high-quality affordable child care,” said Dr. Denisha Jones, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Trinity Washington University and DEY Advisory Board member. “If the parents of Silicon Valley won’t put their own children in online preschool, why would we think this is good for other people's children?”

You should read this part, too:

Recognizing the estimated $70 billion a year “preschool market,” an increasing number of Silicon Valley companies with names like “K12 Inc.” and “CHALK" are selling families and policymakers the idea that kindergarten readiness can be transmitted through a screen. What these companies offer is not preschool, but a marketing scheme designed to sell a virtual facsimile of real preschool. By adopting online pre-k, states are selling out kids and families for the benefit of private industry.

All of our knowledge about human development demonstrates that children learn best through exploratory, creative play and relationships with caring adults. As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes, “Higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.” By contrast, there is virtually no evidence showing that online preschool improves outcomes for kids.

Online pre-K may expose kids and families to new types of risks. Research shows that screen overuse puts young children at risk of behavior problems, sleep deprivation, delays in social emotional development, and obesity. Extended time on screens diminishes time spent on essential early learning experiences such as lap-reading, creative play, and other social forms of learning.

Utah did a study of its own, asserting that UPSTART raised some BS Test scores, and isn't that what you're most hoping for when you hand your tiny human over to the care of a school system? I could spin off into a rant about the BS Tests, but let's leave it that there is no reason to believe that higher tests scores, particularly for elementary students, say anything at all about the child's future-- and even reformsters know it.

I dream of the day when the folks who work at UPSTART suddenly look up and say, "My God! What the hell are we doing?!" Then just shut everything off and walk away, turning out the lights behind them. But of course, as suggested above, they are not the only players in this stupid game. Search for online pre-k and you can find plenty of vendors like ABCmouse, which offers online reading activities and for the love of God-- just get the kid a book! Dolly Parton will send your child one book a month for free, a real actual book that you can hold in your hands and read to your little while she is curled up in your lap! Or there's Time4Learning, which will start your little out with a software program:

The interactions (verbal instructions, interface buttons, graphics, and format) are designed for pre-readers with an early learning level of attention, fine muscle control, and vocabulary. It is designed so that, after the first session, a child could use the program on his or her own with minimal adult supervision

Excellent. I can just tell my four year old to go play on the computer on his own. What an excellent learning experience.

Yes, the argument is going to be that this will reach children who don't have access or finances to go to pre-school, that this can be a resource for isolated families, to which I say this is like saying there are families that don't have access to enough nutritionally rich food, so let's mail them all cases of diet soda and arsenic. Yes, this targets families and children who need something-- but what they need is not this. Nobody needs this.

Modern education reform has spawned plenty of awful things, but plunking three and four year olds in front of a screen-- even for just fifteen minutes a week-- so that they can get ready for kindergarten is one of the worst, most glaring signs that some folks have totally lost their way and that the search for more revenue streams knows no shame.


  1. The American Academy of Pediatricians needs to come out strong and bold about this. They should be making more noise about screen time for ALL children. They should be recommending that parents delay letting children have phones until they are 13-14 yrs old. They should be instructing parents that very young children should not have access to phones or computers....period. I hate it when I see parents letting the kids ride around in the shopping cart playing mind numbing computer games on phones or tablets instead of talking to them or letting them help with the shopping trip. When will these kids ever learn to live within the real world?

  2. I was in the classroom for 27 years,most of it with 4-7 year olds. In my experience, the less educated families are a rich target for this snake oil because of the perception that anything done on a computer is educational. I had a hard time selling the idea of lap time with a story book and simple conversation and songs as powerful learning tools. The human impulse to learn is driven in the early years by our biological SOCIAL primate selves. Learning and teaching is a social endeavor.