NC Virtual Pre-K program moves forward despite experts’ grave concerns

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A bill which would bring online preschool to children of poverty in North Carolina took one step closer to becoming law this week.

If approved, a three year pilot program would deliver the software via computer to families living below the federal poverty line and test the feasibility of scaling the project to bring online preschool to “all preschool-age children in the State.”

On Tuesday, the House K-12 Education Committee heard from the bill’s sponsor, Representative Craig Horn, and Howard Stephenson, a retired Utah Senator who lobbies for Waterford Institute, the Salt Lake City-based organization that developed the Upstart software.

Speaking to the committee, Horn claimed the program is not intended as a substitute for high quality Pre-K:  “We are targeting our most underserved children, four year olds that for whatever reason don’t have access to a Pre-K or just can’t get to one.  Transportation issues, health issues, socio-economic issues, issues that we can’t even imagine.”

Stephenson displayed research of the program’s impact to the House members and spoke hyperbolically of gains made by four year olds who spend just 20 minutes a day sitting in front of a screen working on the Upstart, saying “There has never been, in the history of Pre-K programs, anything that has produced this kind of initial first year start.”

The abbreviated version of the study Stephenson showed neglected to mention that the results were for children whose demographics are vastly different from those Horn proposes targeting:

91% Caucasian

96% English speaking

83% of the parents had at least some college

88% married

30% had household income of 50K or more

80% had household income of 25K or more

76% needed no additional technology or services

14% required computers

6%  required computer and internet

                        (full study text)

Senator Stephenson also declined to tell North Carolina lawmakers about the fact that last fall more than 100 early childhood education experts, educators, and child advocacy organizations signed a statement calling for an end to online preschool programs.  These experts expressed concern about the proliferation of virtual Pre-K and cited Upstart specifically:

As educators and advocates, we are alarmed at the adoption of online preschool across the United States. The state of Utah, citing the need to serve families in remote areas without spending much money, sponsored the first state-funded online program of this kind, called UPSTART, and thousands of families have enrolled. Alarmingly, UPSTART has expanded pilot programs to at least seven other states.

The experts identified a whole host of problems related to online Pre-K:

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. Relational learning requires healthy interactions with adults, and online experiences falsely marketed as “preschool” sabotage the development of these essential relationships. Diminishing the role of early educators both deprives kids of crucial relationships and threatens needed investment in actual high-quality preschools. Children without access to quality pre-K (often the targets of these online programs) already face a higher risk of academic difficulty than their peers, and online pre-K threatens to expand, not close, that gap.

After Stephenson’s sales pitch, Horn took the microphone again to beseech his fellow lawmakers to support the virtual Pre-K pilot for North Carolina.  He reminded them it was not intended as a replacement for actual Pre-K and assured them that we probably, uh, might continue to expand that too:

“Now I think it’s time for North Carolina to address the needs of our own kids, our own 4 year olds that are missing out.  Not just because we don’t have the funds for more Pre-K slots, cause these kids will miss out even if we had the funds for more Pre-K slots.  And we may, and I think we will, continue to expand access for Pre-K. But I’m not willing to leave these kids that are not on that list for any reason, I’m not willing to leave them behind.”

The bill was approved by the House committee and is now headed to Appropriations.

If our lawmakers are serious about wanting to improve the lives of North Carolina’s high-poverty four year olds, they need to expand access to high quality Pre-K and work on removing impediments to children attending those programs.  In the meantime, virtual Pre-K is nothing more than an ill-conceived Band-Aid solution to a problem that deserves our legislators’ genuine commitment.

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