JACKSON, Miss. — LeMya Vaughn, wearing a pink shirt, her hair braided neatly, sat in a large red armchair, her feet swinging far above the floor, practicing her reading skills. She leaned in toward her laptop and looked at a sentence that read, “Bake me a cake.” The word “bake” was in red. The rest of the words were in white.
“Click on a colored word,” said a cheerful voice from the computer. LeMya’s mother, Lakesha Vaughn, sat close by watching as her daughter considered which word to click on. “Find a word that has color,” Vaughn reminded her gently. LeMya thought for a moment and moved the mouse to click on the word “bake.”
“Very good!” her mother said. An animated baker danced on the screen, as the song “patty-cake” blared from the speakers. LeMya smiled.
LeMya logged on to the free program each evening for nearly nine months as she prepared to attend kindergarten this fall. The program, called UPSTART, was developed by a nonprofit company and advertises itself as a kindergarten-readiness program. LeMya’s mother hoped it would help her daughter learn more of the foundational skills she’ll need to get a leg up in school.
Research has found that quality early learning experiences are critical for children. In particular, students who attend high-quality center-based preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be held back.
Now, a small but growing number of nonprofits and for-profit companies are saying they can deliver at least some of these experiences — and benefits — via the internet, and thousands of parents are signing up.
Advocates say online preschool has the potential to address two serious problems with the current state of preschool: access and cost. In states like Mississippi, where state-funded pre-K only serves 4 percent of 4-year-olds, parents have to pay for preschool programs if their children do not get a pre-K seat. Nationally, less than a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-K programs. Advocates of online learning say programs like UPSTART, which is free for most families, may increase access to educational opportunities, which can be critical to ensuring the youngest learners don’t start behind and stay behind.
“During those early years, it’s somewhat of a window of opportunity to close what’s known as the achievement gap and really have students begin kindergarten for a solid foundation for their learning,” said Shannon Riley-Ayers, an associate research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research.
But experts worry putting small children in front of the computer for hours each week is a bad idea. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5. And kids sitting quietly, clicking on a mouse is the opposite of what preschool should be about, say many experts.
Ideally, early learning opportunities teach kids about emotions, how to make friends and get along with other children, and important school-readiness skills like raising a hand to get attention, following directions and holding crayons.
Those learning experiences can’t be replicated in an online setting.
“I think [technology] should always be a companion,” said Chip Donohue, the director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at the Erikson Institute, a graduate school for early education based in Chicago. “We have tools that are 24/7 learning in our hands. I’m all for that. But I would worry if we thought it was appropriate for all kids to not have to be in an early childhood environment where they’re learning social skills and how to get along with others and grit and resilience.”
There are dozens of online programs that promise kindergarten readiness, offering everything from educational games to a complete preschool experience. For the Vaughns, the UPSTART program was a supplement to a local public pre-K program in Jackson. Vaughn said she wanted her daughter to become better with technology, to know how to use a mouse and take tests on a computer, skills required of students in Mississippi. When LeMya started UPSTART, she didn’t know what a mouse was.
By the end of the program, the family was hooked. LeMya logged into the program right up until she graduated in August.
LeMya is one of 156 4-year-olds in Mississippi who participated in UPSTART’s 2016-17 school year pilot program. UPSTART began in Utah, and last year served more than 11,300 children across the country. In 2013, the program’s developer, the nonprofit Waterford Institute, received an $11.5 million grant from the federal government to expand UPSTART to children in rural Utah. It’s so popular in the state that now more than 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds use it. UPSTART has recently expanded to Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio, and Philadelphia.
Waterford’s UPSTART is free. But most kindergarten-readiness and online preschool software is offered by for-profit companies. For example, K12 Inc. is a for-profit company that offers a program it claims will “Fully Prepare Your Child for Kindergarten.” The program includes activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for the adult who will be working with the student. Program officials said they do not give out official numbers, but said they have served “thousands” of students and have seen steady enrollment numbers. K12 Inc. sells its preschool program to individuals as well as schools. A family can buy a 12-month subscription to the comprehensive online program for $99, and extras, like a teacher’s guide kit and materials are offered for $130 and $99 respectively.
Time4Learning, a website aimed at families that homeschool, also offers a comprehensive online preschool program, available to parents for $19.95 a month for the first student in the family who enrolls, with a discounted rate for additional students. ABCMouse.com Early Learning Academy advertises a full online curriculum for children ages 2 through 8, which parents can buy for $59.95 for one year. The program covers reading, math, science, art and colors and can be accessed on a computer, tablet or smartphone. CHALK Preschool Online, a spinoff of the brick-and-mortar CHALK preschool network, offers dozens of free videos through YouTube that cover topics like the weather and math. One video walks viewers through an explanation of state capitals. Another shows kids how to make a “cucumber boat” snack.
As online early learning opportunities expand, experts caution that there could be consequences for kids who spend too much time in front of computers and televisions. A 2016 policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cited research that found “an earlier age of media use onset, greater cumulative hours of media use, and non-PBS content all are significant independent predictors of poor executive functioning in preschoolers.” PBS content refers to Public Broadcasting Service educational shows such as Sesame Street.
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The largest body of research on youngsters and technology focuses on television use, or more passive forms of media entertainment. But researchers are now looking at the use of educational apps and interactive media found on handheld devices or computers. AAP, in its policy statement, said that studies have found the quality of this media varies but most of it is questionable. “Unfortunately, most apps parents find under the ‘educational’ category in app stores have no such evidence of efficacy, target only rote academic skills, are not based on established curricula, and use little or no input from developmental specialists or educators.”
Some of the most popular online preschool programs claim to be created by experts and aligned to educational standards. K12 Inc. officials said their programs were created by “content area specialists” and are aligned to early learning standards and best practices, including those of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the widely adopted Common Core State Standards.
K12 Inc. officials provided general findings from internal research when asked about the effectiveness of their program. “A 2015 research study showed that pre-K students who used Embark showed significant improvement in math and language arts and thus were better prepared for kindergarten than if they hadn’t used it,” officials said. Company officials also said students are assessed throughout the program to see if they have mastered preschool-level skills before they move on to more challenging material.
Claudia Miner, vice president of development at the Waterford Institute, said UPSTART’s lessons are also aligned to national early learning standards and developmentally appropriate practices. The organization collects copious amounts of data to track progress and make sure UPSTART is effective, she said. This data is shared in reports to the federal government and the Utah Department of Education, and shows that the program has been successful at helping students master some prekindergarten skills.
The Waterford program’s lessons are individualized based on a child’s ability level. Children have access to math and science lessons, but reading is the priority. The lessons are often presented as games and walk students through basic literacy concepts like learning the alphabet and practicing simple word and letter recognition. In one lesson, an animated young girl sings a song about sounds and words that match up with each letter in the alphabet. In another lesson, three friendly “word birds” hold up letters as an upbeat voice instructs students to say the sound of each letter. The voice then walks students through blending the letters together into the simple word “lid.” There are also simple stories, presented through digital books, and upbeat songs and colorful characters sprinkled throughout the lessons. Students can access additional educational games after accomplishing the day’s objectives.
A Utah Department of Education report found that students who participated in UPSTART there outperformed their non-participating peers on standardized exams from kindergarten through fourth grade. The report also found UPSTART contributed to significant growth in certain early literacy skills, including pre-primer vocabulary and phonemic blending.
Utah does not offer state-funded pre-K. In 2008, the state’s legislature provided $2.5 million to fund a pilot program of UPSTART, with priority enrollment going to low-income families in the state. State funding has increased steadily since 2008. In 2013, the Waterford Institute’s $11.5 million grant from the federal government went toward expanding the program to children in rural Utah. UPSTART’s pilot programs have been funded through a mix of private and public funds.
Families who lack a computer or internet access at home are provided with free laptops and internet access for the duration of the preschool — an added incentive to join for families who might not otherwise have this access. In Utah, low-income students receive priority; the Waterford Institute spends about $800 per student, according to Claudia Miner. In pilot states, it costs about $1,000 per student if a family already has internet and a computer, or $2,000 per student if the program provides internet and laptop.
UPSTART’s highest per-pupil figures are still far lower than the average amount states spend on public pre-K. In 2016, that average was $4,976 per student according to NIEER. The public pre-K program in Rhode Island, which has been praised for its high quality, cost $6,650 per student in 2016.
Though it may seem more economical, experts caution that online learning is no replacement for high-quality preschool.
NIEER’s Shannon Riley-Ayers said online programs can increase “narrow skills,” like knowing the alphabet, being able to count, and recognizing colors, “quickly and very easily” through repetition. But when it comes to more complex skills and non-academic concepts, like self-regulation, oral language, and self-awareness, they fall short.
Narrow skills are “such a small slice in terms of what they need … and the many, many skills that we want our young learners to have,” Riley-Ayers said. “I don’t think [online preschool] could ever replace a high-quality early childhood brick-and-mortar type of place.”
In Indiana, the state recently invested an additional $2 million in a center-based pre-K pilot program and $1 million in a pilot of UPSTART, after rejecting the opportunity to apply for an $80 million federal grant to develop center-based pre-K last year. Legislators heavily debated UPSTART before approving it. State Sen. Mark Stoops, a Democrat, expressed concern over investing state money meant for preschool in an online program.
“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said according to Chalkbeat Indiana. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”
Sarah Young, Utah’s Coordinator for Digital Teaching and Learning at the State Board of Education, said she doesn’t view UPSTART as a replacement for state-funded preschool, especially since the state does invest in some preschool programs for students with disabilities and low-income children, programs that also receive federal funding. Utah also has a new initiative to improve quality in “face-to-face learning opportunities.”
This year, the state allocated $7.7 million to UPSTART. That’s more than some states invest in starting up new, free center-based programs. Young said the state chose to go with online in part because it’s cost-effective, but also because the demand from parents has been so high. “As with any state dollar, it’s always possible it could be put toward something else,” she said when asked if those funds could have been used for a brick-and-mortar pre-K program. But UPSTART has continued to receive state support because of its outcomes, she said, and the state’s goal is to fund programs that show success and give the most “bang for our buck.”
Young also pointed out that the state has yet to fund full-day kindergarten, making it even more challenging to find “fiscal resources” for preschool.
Claudia Miner of UPSTART says the program is meant to be used to supplement, not replace, in-person early education experiences. Miner says this is especially true if a child is in a care setting that isn’t focused on academics. “If [a child] is in a situation where they’re at a neighbor’s during the day, and a neighbor doesn’t know how to do a curriculum, then they can get good care during the day and do this during the night,” Miner said.
Miner also sees UPSTART as a solution for rural students who often lack any access to good early childhood learning opportunities. In Mississippi, more than 40 percent of students live in a rural area, one of the highest percentages in the nation. “In rural areas where there isn’t access to something else, or no transportation to a [child care] site, they can do [UPSTART] by themselves,” Miner said. “We’re here to provide additional access and to respond to parent choice.”
Ohio Parent Jessica Aragon found UPSTART after searching Google for “online preschool.” A mom who works from home and has five other children and several bus schedules and school start times to manage, she thought online preschool would be the most convenient education option for her second-to-youngest daughter, Lourdes, when she was 4. Lourdes participated in the 2016-17 Ohio pilot program and spent 20 minutes a day, five days a week on the program. Aragon said she was surprised at how much she learned. “She was starting to put words together, and put letters together to create words,” Aragon said. “I was impressed.” Aragon said her daughter is more interested in reading. than her other children, none of whom went to preschool. Aragon has already put her name on a waiting list, to be notified if the program launches formally in the state.
Mississippi mom Crystal Cooper was also pleased. She signed up her daughter, Mikyla, for UPSTART at age 4 to give her more exposure to academic concepts, even though Mikyla was enrolled in a Head Start program. Mikyla was learning her ABCs and how to write her name, but “they didn’t really do reading,” Cooper said. Mikyla started the UPSTART program and worked up from 20 minutes a day to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Cooper said it helped her learn words she hadn’t learned in Head Start, and she was able to read more challenging books. Her reading ability shot up to a first-grade level.
“I’m pretty shocked,” Cooper said.
Shannon Riley-Ayers agrees that technology has a place in early learning settings, and online learning may be a viable option if children aren’t enrolled in quality preschool programs. “For instances where we have low quality [early learning opportunities] or no access, it is an opportunity to get some exposure for young children to some basic skills,” Riley-Ayers said.
LaTasha Hadley, director of UPSTART in Mississippi, said most of the children in Mississippi’s program are low-income. Hadley believes UPSTART offers several benefits, including the impact it has on parents when they work through the program with their child. “They see they can actually contribute to early learning for their kids,” Hadley said.
In all states using UPSTART, families are trained at the beginning of the program. UPSTART officials say a key part of their program is the support they give to families. They frequently suggest activities families can do to hammer home program topics, like searching for letters on everyday objects. Weekly progress reports are emailed to parents, and if families fall below the required 15 minutes a day, they are guaranteed to receive a phone call from an UPSTART official to check in.
This is one aspect of technology use that the Erikson Institute’s Chip Donohue says is essential. “I’m concerned about kids spending time at a screen without that adult mediation,” Donohue said. “And it doesn’t mean the adult needs to be sitting with them all the time. They can be adjacent and working on other things.” But ultimately, Donohue added, technology should support a “healthy relationship and parent-child interaction.”
In Mississippi, student scores grew from the beginning to the end of the pilot in all six literacy areas tested, according to internal research. During nearly every week of the program, average student use exceeded the recommended amount of 75 minutes. In Mississippi, the average weekly usage was 82.15 minutes. UPSTART is currently searching for funding to roll out the program beyond the pilot phase in the state.
Vaughn says LeMya learned her colors and numbers by working through UPSTART’s various lessons. Vaughn liked it so much she signed up her eldest daughter, kindergartener Lindsey, age 6, to work on more advanced literacy topics through the program.
The program made learning fun, she said. While her daughters worked on UPSTART after school, Vaughn either sat with them or stayed close, in the kitchen or living room, so she could help if they needed it. “She’s excited to come home and do [it],” Vaughn said of LeMya. “It made her smarter and more ready to learn.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education and sign up for our newsletter.