The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Yes, there are online preschools. And early childhood experts say they stink.

(iStock) (dolgachov/iStockphoto)
Placeholder while article actions load

In February 2015 I wrote a post with this headline: “And now, online preschools. Really.”

Given that medical experts warn against too much screen time for young children, and given that early childhood experts say the best way for young children to learn is through structured play, it might have seemed that online preschools didn’t have much of a future.

Guess again.

The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues.

As early childhood education has increasingly become focused on what is called “rigor,” or an academic focus, which means that kids spend a lot of time in chairs, online preschools have gained a foothold. In 2015, Utah sponsored the first state-funded online “preschool” of its kind, called UPSTART. And the company has expanded pilot programs to at least seven other states, according to the nonprofit Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early childhood education and advocates for sane policies for young children.

Here’s how the Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit that reports education news, described some of them in this October 2018 post:

Some online preschool programs boast “award-winning curriculum” and offer money-back satisfaction guarantees. Others offer subjects like science and art and virtual field trips to animated farms. One kindergarten-readiness program offers children the promise of academic growth in as little as 15 minutes a day, five days a week. It receives funding from the state of Utah to provide online learning to rural children and has launched pilot programs in several states across the country, including Mississippi...
Online preschool programs have been growing in recent years, and thousands of parents have signed their children up. The programs offer everything from educational games to a full preschool curriculum complete with boxes of activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for an adult. Most online programs are offered by for-profit companies, although perhaps the fastest-growing is UPSTART, which was developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute and is advertised as a kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used by children in Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio and Philadelphia, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds. In 2013, the Waterford Institute received an $11.5 million federal grant to expand the program to rural children in Utah.

This past October, more than 100 early childhood experts and organizations signed a statement calling for an end to public funding of online preschools. The statement, co-authored by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said these preschools deny children the hands-on experience that research says in important for young children. It said in part:

Virtual preschool may save states money, but it’s at the expense of children and families. Early learning is not a product. It is a process of social and relational interactions that are fundamental to children’s later development. Asserting that this process can take place online, without human contact, falsely implies that the needs of children and families can be met with inexpensive, screenbased alternatives.
All children deserve high quality early education, and we call on local, state, and federal agencies and policymakers to reject online preschools and invest in fully funded, relationship-based, universal prekindergarten programs with proven long-term benefits.

Here’s a post by early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige about the real problems with online preschool.

Carlsson-Paige is professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., where she prepared teachers for more than 30 years and was a founder of the university’s Center for Peaceable Schools. She is also the author of “Taking Back Childhood” and “Young Children in the Digital Age: A Parent’s Guide,” as well as a founding member of Defending the Early Years.

The mother of actor Matt Damon and artist Kyle Damon, she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Legacy Award from the Robert F. Kennedy Children’s Action Corps for work over several decades on behalf of children and families.

This first appeared on the EdSurge website, and I was given permission to republish it.

How ‘twisted’ early childhood education has become — from a child development expert

Worry about what screens are doing to your young child’s brain? Here’s help.

By Nancy Carlsson-Paige

The recent growth of online preschools, already in existence in at least eight states, gives states an inexpensive way to deliver pre-K education. But it is a sorry substitute for the whole child, play-based early childhood education that all young children deserve to have.

Cyber schools have been increasing over the last 20 years, and most programs are marketed by for-profit companies. The more recent emergence of online preschool programs opens the door for cyber education businesses to cash in on the estimated $70 billion per year “pre-K market.”

In an education reform climate that has redefined education as academic standards and success on tests, online pre-K programs are an easy sell. Parents are ready to buy into computer-based programs that will get their kids ready for kindergarten by drilling them on letters and numbers. The programs teach discrete, narrow skills through repetition and rote learning.

The truth is that for children to master the print system or concepts of number, they have to go through complex developmental progressions that build these concepts over time through activity and play.

Young children don’t learn optimally from screen-based instruction. Kids learn through activity. They use their bodies, minds and all of their senses to learn. They learn concepts through hands-on experiences with materials in three-dimensional space. Through their own activity and play, and their interactions with peers and teachers, children build their ideas gradually over time.

Many of the online pre-K programs encourage parents to put their kids in front of computers to do academic drills even if they are in a preschool setting.

But if parents really want to help their kids get ahead, whether they are in brick and mortar preschools or not, they would do best by reading lots of books to their children, having ongoing conversations with them, listening and asking open-ended questions that help kids think. They might tell them stories, provide a place for children to play and materials to play with, such as building blocks and art materials that allow them to explore number relationships and use symbols.

Cyber schools have grown most rapidly in poor, urban and rural districts. Virtual schools have abysmally low test scores and graduation rates, but the companies that market them earn staggering profits gleaned from taxpayer dollars. As states begin to put money into preschool education, virtual schools can easily become the option of choice allowing states to save money and claim they are offering pre-K education, albeit a substandard one, while allowing for-profit companies to extend their reach to an even younger age group.

Online pre-K will widen achievement gaps and increase inequality. Kids who get a screen-based pre-K experience will be at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in wealthier communities who thrive in rich, activity-centered programs that support their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development — programs such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, and other quality, play-based preschool programs.

Recently, more than 100 early childhood leaders and organizations signed a position statement objecting to online preschools. In it they quoted an American Academy of Pediatrics article stating that higher-order thinking skills and executive functions such as self regulation and flexible thinking are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.

Preschool education is not learning letters and numbers on a computer screen. Children who are given this pseudo-preschool experience will not have the skills or knowledge of their peers who attend quality pre-K programs; the opportunity gap will widen at an even earlier age.

States have a responsibility to provide high quality early childhood education to every child. Research shows its importance for success in school and in life. Promoting an online version of pre-K to families misleads them into thinking they are helping their kids and undermines our larger societal goals of equal educational opportunity for all children.