Tapping the matching letters. Swiping rhyming words together.
This isn’t preschool.
Online preschool options are becoming more prevalent and continue to receive funding from state agencies and philanthropies as a way to reduce educational inequalities in early childhood. From their view, when it comes to early childhood education, the gap between the haves and have-nots is wedged open by access and funding. In response, an accessible everywhere, low price-tag per student solution would be the panacea. And, according to some, online preschool is that panacea.
The optimist in me says this option is being explored with the best of intentions. Proponents of online preschool are at least acknowledging the absence of early childhood education options for so many young children and are making an effort to address it. They even have research to show that the children who access these online preschool programs do make measurable gains on specific academic tasks. And children and parents alike will say that the activities are fun, engaging, and really don’t require a drastic amount of screentime.
We can acknowledge all of that.
But that still doesn’t make it preschool.
When advocates talk about why young children need access to early education in the first place, they often cite all the benefits associated with preschool using stats from some of the gold-standard studies on early education. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study The Abecedarian Project. The Chicago Child-Parent Center. These studies were longitudinal, multifaceted, and rigorously designed. They demonstrated the positive impact early education can have. Outcomes included increased academic proficiency and increased IQ scores, but also reduced special education needs, increased graduation and employment rates, and reduced criminal offenses. Read or listen to any pitch for funding for preschool, and they will likely include references to these results.
But these results were not obtained simply by slapping a “PRESCHOOL” label onto the first available service. Likewise, their benefits cannot be expected from any program that co-opts that title. These were high-quality programs with skilled teachers, carefully crafted curricula, and support for parents. They also didn’t come cheap.
To borrow researcher Dale Farran’s response to another question of preschool quality, offering a “preschool alternative” and expecting the same results as a high-quality program is like knowing spinach is really good for kids, but because spinach is expensive, you give the kids who can’t afford it Easter grass instead. (You know, that green, plastic basket filler?) It’s not the same as spinach, but it’s cheap and it looks the same according to some measures.
So the kids without spinach get Easter grass. Now everyone’s even, right?
Online preschool professes to close the gap for children without access to preschool. But it may actually prop it open. The gap between advantaged and disadvantaged childhoods rarely hinges on who learns to say the ABCs first. As Dr. Amy Webb wrote in her piece on online preschool:
…The kindergarteners I see that struggle in the classroom are not the ones who don’t know their ABC’s, it’s the ones who lack social-emotional skills. They are the ones that struggle with self-regulation so they pester the kid sitting next to them. They are the kids who struggle to share or get along with their classmates. Are these social-emotional skills fostered well in an online preschool? I don’t see how they could be.”
Recent research supports the fact that in early childhood it’s these social skills — the sharing, the getting along, the self-regulation — that are actually more predictive of long-term success than are the academic skills on any checklist, online or otherwise. Additionally, research on “bridging the gap” in early childhood has shown that contributing subsets of that gap include disparities in words, conversation, and interactions and disparities in access to free, safe play
Serving up the “Easter grass” of 15 minutes of tap-and-drag, academic style games to take the place of the superfood “spinach” experience of high-quality hours of preschool, full of social experiences, rich conversations, serve and respond interactions, and powerful play could hardly be called equality. Particularly when you consider that these programs are aimed at the populations that need that “spinach” the most.
While some might argue that doing something is better than nothing, that *something* is actually part of the problem. Because when resources and attention are diverted to this system, the powers that be — politicians, education departments, schools, even parents — feel that *something* has already been done. It becomes tempting, particularly with a long list of tasks to attend to, to consider that particular item checked off.
“But these children don’t have spinach.”
“No, no. We took care of that. We gave them Easter grass. See? It’s even green, just like spinach! Basically the same thing. In fact, let’s just call it online spinach.”
But when you consider they’re feeding the most vulnerable children “Easter grass” it becomes clear that this concept is not the panacea it claims to be. Rather, it’s more like a placebo; it doesn’t actually cause the desired effect, it simply allows us to believe it does so that we can feel better.
We have to stop allowing the placebo effect to make us believe we’re offering children anything close to equality.
An online program — be it the very highest quality skill practice (something we could argue about at length I’m sure) — is still not preschool. You can’t simply reduce preschool and all of its benefits to a checklist of skills to be practiced for 15 minutes a day. The programs may even have their own supplemental value in certain contexts, but they should never be misrepresented as being equal to a preschool experience. As the advocacy groups Defending the Early Years and Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood said in their joint statement:
Virtual preschool may save states money, but it’s at the expense of children and families. Early learning is not a product. It is a process of social and relational interactions that are fundamental to children’s later development. Asserting that this process can take place online, without human contact, falsely implies that the needs of children and families can be met with inexpensive, screenbased alternatives.”
Dr. Denisha Jones made one of the most convicting statements when it comes to online preschool. If the creators of these types of programs, “the parents of Silicon Valley won’t put their own children in online preschool, why would we think this is good for other people’s children?”
When I discussed this topic with Dr. Amy Webb on Not Just Cute, The Podcast, we discovered that (while in economically stable homes ourselves) we both grew up in rural, low-income areas. This doesn’t feel like “other people’s children” to us. We WERE those children. These are OUR communities. As we’ve both watched our own hometowns build quality early education options in recent years, we’ve cheered them on, knowing it serves as evidence that there’s a better way to meet this need and answer our stewardship.
For ALL of our children.