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Curmudgucation: DEY: Opposing Online Preschool

Defending the Early Years and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood have released a co-authored statement in response to the rise of online "preschools." This exceptionally dumb concept has been around for a few years (Utah leapt in with UPSTART in 2015) and yet there is still scant evidence that it's a good idea to plunk three and four year olds down in front of a computer screen to practice academic subjects.

Never not a terrible idea


Utah, a state unwilling to provide state funded preschool, did their own study and found that UPSTART students did better on standardized exams from kindergarten through fourth grade than "non-participating" students. In other words, online preschool provided better test prep than no preschool at all. The whole business is enough to make one rage-weep because A) there's no evidence that the standardized test means anything important (and even reformsters are coming to understand that) and B) why in God's name are we giving standardized tests to K-4 students?

Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence that while this idea may suck from an educational, developmental, spiritual, and general being human standpoint, it is absolutely awesome from a make-a-whole-bunch-of-money standpoint. Some of the programs are "non-profit" which, as we've seen repeatedly, is a distinction without a difference-- somebody, somehow, is making money off them. Some programs are sold to the state, and some are sold to individual families, and yes, the damned feds are in there throwing money around, too ($11.5 million to help expand the UPSTART program).

The cyberpreschool programs are not just bad in their own right-- they also help feed the notion that the little should be spending more time on academics and less time playing and messing around like a bunch of little kids. This flies in the face of virtually everything we know about the development of tiny humans, but there's not nearly as much money to be made in having kids go out and play in a field with each other.

From the DEY/CCFC statement about cyberpreschool:

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.

All of the assertions come with footnotes to back them up. And if you like your experts a bit more live, here's an important quote from the news release that came with the statement this morning:

"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.”

And another point well worth remembering:

“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?”

The statement has been signed by an extraordinary list of 100+ organizations and education professionals, including Parents Across America, the Network for Public Education, Common Sense Media, the CEO of Chicago's Children's Museum, Peter Gray, Rae Pica, Tim Slekar, and author Joe Clement.

Read the statement, and check out the press release for more details.

Holding the line for the littles is one of the most important things we can advocate for, because running some unfounded bone-headed profiteering experiment on a four year old creates a lifetime of issues for that child. Online PreK should not be a thing at all, ever.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...