In our current era of fiscal austerity, state governments are increasingly looking for inexpensive ways to solve complex problems. Early childhood education is not immune to this belt-tightening. This year, over 6,600 children across Utah are attempting to learn the skills needed for kindergarten success via computer through a state-funded online software program called UPSTART.
Students participating in UPSTART spend 15 minutes per day using a computer program at home designed to teach early math, literacy, and science skills. Since UPSTART began in 2008 it has grown quickly, and external evaluations of the program show some early literacy gains among children who use it. In a sign of the program’s widespread appeal, last year it was awarded an $11.5 million federal Investing in Innovation (i3) grant to expand into rural Utah communities where students might not have access to pre-K programs. The appeal of programs like UPSTART to cash-strapped states is obvious since online programs are much cheaper to deliver than traditional, high-quality pre-K programs, even with the cost of providing a computer and Internet access when necessary. UPSTART costs only about $800 per student, compared to traditional pre-K programs that cost thousands of dollars per student. But are children losing out?
It’s uninformed thinking on the part of state legislators to believe that high-quality pre-K can be delivered in 15 minute snippets on a computer. If we’ve learned anything from evaluations of pre-K programs, it’s that children need well-trained teachers who engage with them and their peers in rich language interactions that build early literacy skills, support their social-emotional growth, and guide them to explore in ways that build foundational knowledge. It’s difficult for high-quality teachers to provide this level of quality instruction without substantial funding or time. Take New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool program for example, which studies have shown leads to sustained student gains in math, literacy, and science skills. The program serves three- and four-year-old children for six hours per day for 180 days a year and requires all teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with specialized training and pre-K. The state spends about $12,900 per student per year to ensure that each child has access to high-quality interactions and instruction. While more spending per child and more time in the classroom are no guarantee, they are associated with better outcomes.
UPSTART is so inexpensive because of the lack of infrastructure (settings for children, parents, and teachers to learn together) and personnel costs (teacher salaries), but these are essential ingredients for a successful pre-K program. An exclusively computer-based program doesn’t allow opportunity for the social and emotional growth and adult-child interactions inherent in a well-run pre-K classroom. High quality pre-K is about more than improving math and literacy skills; it’s about helping children become better learners and classmates. Recent research suggests that the ability of young children to regulate their own behavior is directly linked to academic success. Staying calm when a classmate knocks down your block tower, showing empathy for a friend who falls on the playground, or having the self-confidence and language abilities to speak in front of classmates and adults are all important skills that cannot be taught via computer program. Social emotional skills learned in pre-K can help children succeed in the long-run both inside and outside of the classroom.
This isn’t to say that learning technology cannot help foster these skills. It can. But the impact of technology on children is heavily dependent on the adults and peers who engage with them around the technology, as well as before and after using it. Our colleague Lisa Guernsey and her co-author Michael Levine explore this issue at length in their new book, Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens. Guernsey and Levine point out that educational technology is not a tool that will rescue schools and save the world, but it’s also not a malevolent force that will destroy the hope of raising skilled readers for the next generation. The value of educational technology is as dependent on the involvement of students’ parents and teachers as it is on the students themselves.
According to Guernsey and Levine, “children who interact with technology while working with adults who can set good examples and guide them to new heights are receiving tremendous advantages.” Online programs, such as UPSTART, have possibilities in tandem with trained teachers and engaged parents. All programs, online or off, that aim to deliver academic gains for young children should ensure that parents are given models for working alongside their children as they explore new technology together and that other adults in children’s lives, including teachers and librarians, take opportunities to explore concepts and engage in back-and-forth dialogue around the media and tech tools they are using.
Another case of online software for pre-K students has emerged in Manassas City, Virginia, where the city is experimenting with a combination of home-based technology and classroom-based instruction. In response to high demand and an inability to provide all eligible children with pre-K five days per week, Manassas City has rolled out a program in which pre-K students attend traditional classes two or three days per week while having access to free literacy software that they are encouraged to use at home with their parents. The software, called Footsteps2Brilliance, allows students to switch between English and Spanish as they interact with a virtual library of children’s books. All participating parents supposedly have access to a teacher who can instruct them in the best methods for working alongside their child. The blended model in Manassas City is being touted as a possible model for other school districts who are struggling to find the funds and classroom space necessary to accommodate full-day pre-K programs.
We hope that evaluations and research studies are underway to assess whether this model works and explore how parents engage and talk with their children during and after their daily online experiences.
Online programs can be an effective way to supplement traditional instruction for young learners. Programs like UPSTART are an innovative solution for reaching children who do not have access to other learning opportunities. Fifteen minutes a day using software with a research-based curriculum is better than nothing, but it is not a replacement for high-quality pre-K.