Can 4-year-olds learn what they need to know for kindergarten by sitting in front of a computer for 15 minutes a day?
Utah is betting they can. This year, more than 6,600 children across the state are learning by logging on to laptops at home in a taxpayer-funded online preschool program that is unlike any other.
This is preschool without circle time on the carpet, free play with friends and real, live teachers. In online preschool, children navigate through a series of lessons, games and songs with the help of a computer mouse and two animated raccoons named Rusty and Rosy.
The Obama administration last year awarded an $11.5 million grant to expand the online program into rural communities to study how well it prepares children for kindergarten. Schools in South Carolina are testing it, and Idaho lawmakers are considering a pilot program.
It’s a sign of the growing interest among educators in using technology to customize learning, even for the youngest children. It also gives children who might otherwise not get any preparation for elementary school a chance to experience an academic program. But it’s also missing some ingredients — especially social and emotional learning — that many experts and parents consider central to the education of young children.
Utah’s approach, which is far cheaper than traditional preschool programs and can reach students in the state’s most remote areas, is to some critics an example of a common problem: Lawmakers want to harness the oft-touted benefits of early-childhood education without investing enough to ensure quality.
“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.”
State Sen. Howard A. Stephenson (R), who sponsored the bill that created the Utah program, sees it differently. Utah is one of 10 states that lack a state-funded traditional preschool program. In its K-12 schools, Utah spends just $6,252 per student, which is less than any other state and two-thirds of the national average.
“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.”
Called Upstart — or Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow — the program has grown quickly since its inception in 2008, bolstered by external evaluations that have shown early literacy gains among children who use it. It is a program of the Waterford Institute, a Utah-based nonprofit center that has long sold instructional software to K-12 schools.
Upstart will cost about $5.3 million this year, or about $800 per student. That is about half the cost of Arizona’s state-funded traditional preschool program, which is the least-expensive in the country, and a fraction of Washington’s universal preschool program, which costs $15,000 per student, according to Barnett’s early education research center at Rutgers.
Waterford provides participating families with software and parent training sessions and, if need be, laptops and Internet access. The nonprofit also has installed solar panels for several students whose homes do not have electricity, including for the Parrish family, who live in the Navajo Nation’s iconic Monument Valley.
“I would recommend it to other parents,” said Clara Parrish, whose granddaughter began Upstart last year while attending a traditional preschool for two half-days each week. “She was a little behind, and then when she went to Upstart, she caught up. I think she’s doing better than she was.”
Public preschool programs have been expanding nationwide as policymakers have come to see early-childhood education as key to closing persistent achievement gaps between children from poor and affluent families. Research shows that at-risk children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to have positive life outcomes than their counterparts who do not attend preschool. They are more likely to graduate from high school and less likely to get into trouble with the law or to go to jail.
But Barnett and other early-education experts said that those powerful effects stem not only from the academic boost that preschools can provide but also from the social and emotional skills — such as self-control — that young children learn when they play and negotiate with their peers in person.
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.
“They’ve selected their outcomes that they are likely to achieve, and it’s probably safe to assume that impacts on the others are zero,” Barnett said.
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.
Miner 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.
“In some of the most rural parts of Utah and the country, there simply isn’t a bricks-and-mortar option or, if there is, it involves a long travel time,” Miner said.
About half of the children who participated in Upstart during the 2014-2015 school year were enrolled in another preschool program. One of them was Megan Albrecht’s daughter, who attended a preschool three half-days each week.
“The Upstart program was great, but it really just went over letters, just the alphabet and the grammar part, and there’s so much more than just that,” said Albrecht, a mother of three in Panguitch, Utah, a rural town of 1,600 in southern Utah, near Bryce Canyon’s famous rock hoodoos.
But Albrecht said Upstart is an important tool because it provides her a structure, and a daily nudge, to teach her daughter the alphabet and basic skills for kindergarten.
Mark Innocenti, a professor at Utah State University, was skeptical about using scarce state funds to pay for an educational model with unproven results for lowincome students. But after evaluating whether the program is effective when used in home day care and district-run preschool programs, his thinking has changed.
Innocenti said he has been convinced that combining online learning with traditional preschool is a valid approach that gives children the best of both worlds. But he said he remains concerned about relying on an in-home computer program to serve the poorest children, especially those whose parents work or speak English as a second language.
Utah’s legislature recently started an effort to serve those children in traditional, center-based preschools. In a twist on preschool funding — using “social impact bonds” — investors can foot the upfront costs of providing traditional preschool programs. And if the program meets goals for reducing the number of children who need costly special education services, taxpayers pay the investors back, with interest.
That program is quite small, serving about 1,000 children, according to Stephenson, the state senator. And it is far more expensive than Upstart. It probably will cost taxpayers between $1,900 and $2,000 per child, according to state fiscal analysts.
Stephenson said the cost of traditional preschool limits how many of the state’s 50,000 4-year-olds can be served.
“We can cover a lot more children with the same dollars with Upstart,” he said.