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Nancy Bailey's Education Website: What Preschool Isn’t: Waterford UPSTART and Any Other Online Program!

No one can deny the importance of early learning. We have years of research by developmental psychologists and early childhood education researchers built on findings to help us understand how preschoolers learn. We need to fund adequate preschools so students get a good introduction to the joy of formal learning.

Researchers have known for some time that preschool is important for learning. In 2003, W. Steven Barnett and Jason T. Husted critiqued studies demonstrating the importance of three preschool programs. The benefits of the High/Scope Perry Preschool program, Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention program, and the Title I Chicago Child-Parent Centers are well-documented.

Head Start, a federal program created in 1965 to assist children from low-income families has also seen gains in the children it serves, but the program has always been under attack by policymakers who resented paying for the program. While middle class and the wealthy have access to good preschool, the poor struggle to find affordable preschool that give children access to beneficial early learning.

What’s great about preschool? Children get to play and learn with other children. It’s a step beyond a playdate. They collectively acquire knowledge with activities that they themselves create! Play is hard work, but preschoolers don’t know it because they are having so much fun. What a tremendous precursor to learning in school and kindergarten!

Well, that’s how preschool used to be.

One maneuver that has no research in its favor is plopping a three or four-year-old in front of a computer, even in their parent’s lap, to focus on developmentally inappropriate skills. We’ve known for a while about Waterford UPSTART a Utah-based online preschool program. This program is being described as a replacement for real preschools. To save money. But there’s no research to say this will work.

The well-respected Defending the Early Years (DEY) reports that The Audacious Project housed at TED, as in TED Talks, which funds ideas for social change will throw millions of dollars at Waterford UPSTART.

Here is their letter.

The award winners will be announced at the TED2019 in Vancouver tonight, April 16. You can follow by tuning in as @TEDTalks livestreams the @TheAudaciousPrj awards 8pm ET/5pm PT and tweet your reactions to UPSTART/online preschool #RejectOnlinePrek.

In 2017, the PBS News Hour examined Waterford UPSTART and noted other online programs. They include:

They seem to be trying to close the achievement gap by forcing children to learn information. Often it seems beyond what a preschooler should be learning. For example, the PBS News Hour reports on a mother teaching her preschooler sight words. When children work online they must focus on skills, not play. They miss much.

The Audacious Project has your usual corporate school funders.

  • TED
  • Skoll Foundation
  • Virgin Unite
  • Scott Cook & Signe Ostby
  • The Bridgespan Group
  • Dalio Foundation
  • Laura & John Arnold
  • ELMA Philanthropies
  • Children’s Investment Fund Foundation
  • Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
  • MacArthur Foundation
  • Mike & Sukey Novogratz
  • Craig & Susan McCaw
  • UBS Optimus Foundation
  • James Family Charitable Foundation
  • Robertson Foundation
  • Science Philanthropy Alliance

I wonder if these individuals don’t understand early childhood education. Have they read the research?

Sitting young children in front of screens to learn will likely have bad long-term repercussions. We already know that more screen time doesn’t help older children in school. We also understand that teens are too glued to screens and with social media have become increasingly depressed and anxious.

So there’s little doubt that pushing preschoolers to do their learning on computers is a huge mistake.

We know how important activity and play are to children. Without it, they miss important early learning foundations. We also know how poorly children learn with a sedentary lifestyle of viewing and little doing.

Parents are so concerned that programs like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) are becoming household names.

Parents worry about privacy. But more than that, they collectively care about how young children are learning and what the future will have in store for all of us if today’s preschoolers don’t learn well. We will have to fix the mistakes that online learning will cause when good preschool programs fall by the wayside! What kind of preschool programs will be left for children? How much will today’s preschooler miss?

Most of us do not reject technology. It would be hypocritical for a blogger to do so. Technology is a reality and can be used for good when teaching children, even young children. But replacing authentic preschools with online programs is not a satisfactory answer. We have no proof these programs work. Better funding of real preschools is what’s needed.

Please go the DEY website and read about their fight for good early education. Start with the report “Young Children in the Digital Age: A Parent’s Guide,” by Early Childhood Specialist Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige.

Other posts about Waterford UPSTART:

The Devil’s in the Details, Utah September 9, 2016.

“Disruption” Using Technology is Dangerous to Child Development and Public Education  November 13, 2018.

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The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Nancy Bailey

Nancy Bailey was a teacher in the area of special education for many years, and has a PhD in educational leadership from Florida State University. She has authored two books, Misguided Education Reform: Debating the Impact on Students (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Losing America’s Schools: The Fight to Reclaim Public Education (Rowman & Littlefield,...