Waterford Gets $20M+ Grant for Online Preschool. Its Critics Are Not Happy.


Waterford Gets $20M+ Grant for Online Preschool. Its Critics Are Not Happy.

By Stephen Noonoo     Apr 17, 2019

Waterford Gets $20M+ Grant for Online Preschool. Its Critics Are Not Happy.

In the world of education, some debates rage eternal. How much testing is too much? What’s the right balance between public schools and charters? And lately, are digital screens appropriate for teaching young learners?

That last question is at the center of a contentious exchange revolving around a just-announced grant to Waterford.org, makers of the online Kindergarten readiness program Upstart, from The Audacious Project, a philanthropic offshoot of TED that brings together multiple donors each year to fund what it calls “bold ideas.”

Waterford’s grant, which Audacious executive director Anna Verghese says is worth more than $20 million, is just one of eight given to projects selected by the organization, and recently announced at this year’s annual TED conference in Vancouver. Other funded projects focus on ocean conservation, boosting girls’ education in rural India and combating child exploitation on the internet—the latter made to the Ashton Kutcher-founded nonprofit Thorn.

Waterford was selected after a careful review of existing research on early childhood development, and what it would take to bring that sort of education to scale, says Verghese. “Despite the momentum recently to expand early learning opportunities to children, there are still millions of people who face barriers to that access, specifically in rural and low-income areas,” she says. “That’s where Upstart comes in.”

Together, Audacious says it has raised a total of $280 million for the eight projects from a coalition of more than 20 donors, including the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite and the Children's Investment Fund Foundation. It hopes to raise $200 million more. Instead of splitting the money evenly among projects or making funding determinations, Audacious selects the projects and lets donors determine where to allocate their gifts.

Waterford, a nonprofit, declined to specify the exact amount of its grant or any of the individual supporters, citing ongoing discussions. CEO Benjamin Heuston did say the money will go toward growing Upstart’s footprint across the country and lobbying state governments to implement the program.

Founded in Utah in 2009, Waterford provides a program that mixes adaptive software for preschool-aged kids, along with child development training and check-ins for parents. The program focuses on building pre-literacy skills, such as sound blending and letter names, and is designed to be used 15 minutes a day for a total of 75 minutes per week. Currently Upstart is used by about 19,000 families in Utah and in smaller pilots in about 15 other states.

“This is envisioned as a five-year project,” Heuston explains. “It’s hoped that we'll be able to take that footprint and grow it to the point where, across those five years, we’ll serve about a quarter million children.”

Early Concerns

Even before the news was officially announced, word about Waterford’s grant had already reached advocacy groups Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, two critics of online preschool services. Last weekend, they released a joint statement addressed to Audacious arguing that “online preschool is no substitute for real, place-based preschool,” and urging them to reconsider the grant. (Audacious declined to comment on the contents of the letter.)

“Preschool should be a time of play and exploration and face-to-face learning,” says Josh Golin, the executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a group focused on the harmful impacts of digital marketing on children. “Policymakers will think, ‘We can do universal pre-K on the cheap if we do this online program,’ and that’s really concerning.”

Waterford acknowledges the benefits of in-person preschool, but contends that its model is ideal for families in rural areas and other places where high-quality programs do not exist. The organization also believes the label “online preschool” doesn’t provide the whole picture. While the program requires preschool-age children to use computers by themselves for 15 minutes per day, parents are first brought in for a face-to-face training session where best practices for childhood development and education are taught.

“We remind them or teach them about the importance of simply talking with their children, using rich language, putting away the cell phone during dinner, all those sorts of things that bring a parent and a child together,” Heuston says.

Waterford then uses what it calls “family education liaisons” to check in with parents while children navigate the online program to answer questions. Data collected from a child’s progress is also collected and analyzed (though Waterford contends it complies with Utah’s student data regulations and is regularly audited for compliance.)

As for screen time concerns, Waterford points out that its 15 minutes of educational content per day falls within the recommendations set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. And Heuston says that parent liaisons will suggest children use the program less if the data shows that students are spending too much time with it.

Waterford’s program does track with the AAP’s guidelines, which recommend no more than an hour of high-quality screen time per day for kids aged 2 to 5. But Marc Lerner, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health, tells EdSurge that there’s a greater benefit to parents interacting with their children and working on pre-literacy skills together than when children work alone.

“When parents engage with their children in learning experiences, it changes the way that they interact with their children,” Lerner says. “If their child is spending 15 minutes with a device, the parent doesn’t learn from that and doesn’t bring that into their interactions when they go to buy food, or when they’re counting how many items they’re going to pick up.”

Lerner says there very well may be value in programs like Upstart, and points to research out of University of California, Irvine, where he works, that shows kids do make some academic gains when using literacy or math curricula before Kindergarten (although the study focused on place-based preschools). Yet he thinks programs like Upstart may be most beneficial when added to a more well-rounded regimen that focuses on broad play-based experiences, healthy routines and nutrition.

Waterford references research as well, including a study compiled by independent evaluator ETI, and promoted by the Utah State Board of Education, that shows gains for children using the program in key pre-literacy areas—such as rhyme recognition and phoneme blending—compared with a control group.

To critics like Defending the Early Years, an organization founded by early learning experts to advocate for play- and relationship-based preschool, Upstart takes the emphasis off high-quality programs with trained teachers and places too much value in using technology to seek answers at a young age, when kids should be developing independence. In fact, co-director Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin charges that the program is actually more harmful than having nothing at all.

“What they’re selling to families is kids on the computer with headphones, so it’s not even interacting with a caring grownup who can explain things,” she says. “It’s going to teach kids that the computer has the answer, not their own selves.”

Waterford’s target market is another concern, Golin says, and serves only to amplify existing inequalities in education—namely that some families can afford higher quality preschool experiences than others. The solution to that problem, he says, is more investment in place-based preschools of the type that wealthier families have access to.

“As we said in the letter: I doubt any of the people who are funding this would think 75 minutes a week online is an acceptable substitute for preschool for their own children,” he says. “Thinking it’s OK for poor or rural children—it’s frankly shocking to me that this is being pushed as something that’s an acceptable alternative.”

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