On-line Preschool Looks Like a Convenient Way to Save Money… and Save Face… But NOT Save Children
Having worked as a consultant for several school districts in Vermont, I know that one of the challenges district in that state face is how to implement a recent legislative mandate to provide a quality preschool for all children. In trying to provide Universal Preschool, school districts face physical and political problems— geographically remote students, undersized and outmoded schools, and pre-existing “Nursery School” programs operated out of private homes— and fiscal problems— the price tag for teachers, aides, and other support staff can be daunting.
A recent article by Thomas Arnett in ESchool News has a possible solution to these thorny issues: online pre-school. Mr. Arnett reports that Utah instituted such a program called Upstart over six years ago and the result are promising:
In the six years since it launched, Upstart’s results have shown students in the program to demonstrate strong gains in early literacy that significantly exceed those of students in matched control groups.
As these cohorts of Upstart students progress through their first few years of school, they continue to outperform their peers on state exams. Most noteworthy is the fact that special education students, low-income students and English learners have the largest gains relative to their comparable peer groups.
Given that Upstart costs just $725 per student, it is a more-than-sensible solution in states where universal preschool does not exist.
A variation of the caveat phrase, “in states where universal preschool does not exist” appears again at the end of the article, with another caveat on top of it regarding affordability:
But for parents who cannot afford private preschool and who do not live in a region with state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable access to early learning opportunities.
As many states rush to provide universal preschool education, I would not be at all surprised to see this model expand rapidly. Why? Because politicians realize that getting parents used to the idea of delivering instruction through computers as opposed to having live human beings provide instruction will save millions of dollars over time… and the fact that it can be done for a fraction of the current cost will enable them to keep their promise to expand programs without having to raise taxes, hire hundreds of new teachers, or worry about transportation logistics or facility limitations. A restatement of the last paragraph with a slightly different slant will indicate why these online preschools are likely to spread:
But for politicians who are unwilling to raise taxes to cover the costs of public preschools that are the equivalent to private preschool and who govern a region with NO state-funded preschool options, these programs offer valuable way to claim they are offering access to early learning opportunities.
You can call something a “preschool”… but if it consists of “…15 minutes per day, five days per week, (where) students log into the curriculum to engage in adaptive lessons, digital books, songs, and activities designed to develop their knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science.” it doesn’t warrant the name— especially when it is overseen by an untrained parent. Watch, though: in the next five years I am willing to wager that at least ten states will launch online preschools based on “The Utah Model”— unless they use their $725 voucher to help underwrite the cost of a bona fide preschool or a sectarian preschool that offers Bible instruction.