Online Preschool Is Not Education for All

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

Online Preschool Is Not Education for All

By Nancy Carlsson-Paige     Dec 31, 2018

Online Preschool Is Not Education for All

This article is part of the collection: New Year, New Learning: Reflections on Education in 2018 and Beyond.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige was nominated to share her thoughts by Diane Ravitch, who wrote for the project in 2017.

The recent growth of online preschools, already in existence in at least eight states, gives states an inexpensive way to deliver pre-K education. But it is a sorry substitute for the whole child, play-based early childhood education that all young children deserve to have.

Cyber schools have been increasing over the last twenty years, and most programs are marketed by for-profit companies. The more recent emergence of online preschool programs opens the door for cyber education businesses to cash in on the estimated $70 billion per year “pre-K market.”

In an education reform climate that has redefined education as academic standards and success on tests, online pre-K programs are an easy sell. Parents are ready to buy into computer-based programs that will get their kids ready for kindergarten by drilling them on letters and numbers. The programs teach discrete, narrow skills through repetition and rote learning. The truth is that for children to master the print system or concepts of number, they have to go through complex developmental progressions that build these concepts over time through activity and play.

Young children don’t learn optimally from screen-based instruction. Kids learn through activity. They use their bodies, minds and all of their senses to learn. They learn concepts through hands-on experiences with materials in three-dimensional space. Through their own activity and play, and their interactions with peers and teachers, children build their ideas gradually over time.

Many of the online pre-K programs encourage parents to put their kids in front of computers to do academic drills even if they are in a preschool setting. But if parents really want to help their kids get ahead, whether they are in brick and mortar preschools or not, they would do best by reading lots of books to their children, having ongoing conversations with them, listening and asking open-ended questions that help kids think. They might tell them stories, provide a place for children to play and materials to play with, such as building blocks and art materials that allow them to explore number relationships and use symbols.

Cyber schools have grown most rapidly in poor, urban and rural districts. Virtual schools have abysmally low test scores and graduation rates, but the companies that market them earn staggering profits gleaned from taxpayer dollars. As states begin to put money into preschool education, virtual schools can easily become the option of choice allowing states to save money and claim they are offering pre-K education, albeit a substandard one, while allowing for-profit companies to extend their reach to an even younger age group.

Online pre-K will widen achievement gaps and increase inequality. Kids who get a screen-based pre-K experience will be at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in wealthier communities who thrive in rich, activity-centered programs that support their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development—programs such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, and other quality, play-based preschool programs.

Recently, more than one hundred early childhood leaders and organizations signed a position statement objecting to online preschools. In it they quoted an American Academy of Pediatrics article stating that higher-order thinking skills and executive functions such as self regulation and flexible thinking are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.

Preschool education is not learning letters and numbers on a computer screen. Children who are given this pseudo-preschool experience will not have the skills or knowledge of their peers who attend quality pre-K programs; the opportunity gap will widen at an even earlier age. States have a responsibility to provide high quality early childhood education to every child. Research shows its importance for success in school and in life. Promoting an online version of pre-K to families misleads them into thinking they are helping their kids and undermines our larger societal goals of equal educational opportunity for all children.

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