Pre-K in Person or Online: Why Settle for a Pale Imitation?


On the one hand, the idea is shocking; on the other, it is seductive: Why not teach pre-K online?

Wouldn’t online pre-K be better than no pre-K at all for the four-year-olds who live in remote rural areas or urban deserts or whose families can’t afford to send them to real, in-person pre-K?

Dozens of entrepreneurs think so—and believe they can make a lot of money by developing programs that promise to deliver kindergarten readiness at home in front of a computer screen.

Giant for-profit corporations such as K12 and Connections Education already dominate the nation’s online charter school market, and because their schools have been certified by a public school system, they are able to offer free tuition and collect millions of taxpayer dollars—this despite investigations showing gross financial mismanagement and graduation and achievement ratings far below those of brick-and-mortar schools.

Recently an online newcomer took aim at preschoolers:, a non-profit company that has captured the support of the government of Utah—one of six U.S. states that has no public pre-K. It has reeled in millions of additional dollars from philanthropies and the federal Department of Education to build, maintain, and propagate a pre-K program called Upstart that now serves 16,000 children in 15 states.

What does online pre-K do?

The attractions of online pre-K are easy to see. With the government’s support, it is usually free, and some companies (including Upstart) supply needy families with computers and internet service for nine months so that their children can spend 15 minutes a day, five days a week, learning pre-reading and pre-math skills.

Cyber pre-K overcomes distance and travel problems, suits families and religious communities that believe in educating children at home, and may boost literacy scores, at least to begin with.

But most important, it is cheap. It costs the government about a quarter as much as real pre-K which, with its real teachers and real equipment, runs to an average of $5175 per child. Very high-quality full-day pre-K can be even more pricey.

But is this what pre-K is all about?

What does this pseudo version of pre-K actually provide, especially to poor and disadvantaged children already on the wrong side of the achievement gap, who, studies convincingly show, benefit the most from in-person pre-K?

Any self-respecting early childhood educator will tell you that pre-K is about much more than letters and numbers. In fact, 100-plus experts, organizations, and teachers recently got together to condemn online pre-K.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, who taught teachers in child development at Lesley University for 30 years, dubbed it “a sorry substitute for the whole-child, play-based early childhood education that all young children deserve to have.”

Josh Golin, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, added, “It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children. Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers…. None of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

The programs themselves also create concern. The content should be developmentally appropriate and reflect a child’s knowledge, lifestyle, and values, but the animated scenes, characters, and words seem to be totally unfamiliar, especially for children living in poverty or rural areas or who come from different cultures.

Several well-controlled, long-term studies show that children who’ve been in play-based preschool programs do better in elementary school than those who’ve attended academically oriented preschools that feature early reading instruction. Although children who’ve gone to academic preschool may perform well initially, they have significantly lower marks and “notably poorer” behavior by the end of elementary school, when they need more initiative, independence, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills—skills that children acquire in play-based programs.

What does real pre-K do?

Pre-K is important because of the experiences it provides. Indeed, a key ingredient of its success is children’s interaction with others—with their peers and a trained, real-life pre-K teacher who creates a warm, orderly classroom and activities and uses an evidence-based curriculum, but above all talks with the children, reads to them, and asks them questions that help them learn to think, reason, focus, solve problems, make friends, share, cooperate, control their impulses, wait for a turn, follow instructions, empathize, and persist at a challenging task (among other accomplishments); in short, a teacher who provides them with a solid, in-depth foundation for learning more advanced concepts and skills later on.

Says Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, “The initial school experience sets the stage for later behavior. Those in classes where they learned to plan their own activities, to play with others, and to negotiate differences may have developed lifelong patterns of personal responsibility and prosocial behavior that served them well throughout their childhood and early adulthood.”

High-quality preschool can help mitigate the effects of poverty and adversity, which compromise brain development, and “this is pre-K’s primary function,” says Deborah Phillips, professor of psychology at Georgetown University and a leading researcher in child development.

Pre-K’s up-front costs may be higher, but the list of its benefits over time is long and impressive. It:

  • Reduces child abuse and neglect
  • Increases school readiness and achievement
  • Diminishes the need for special education
  • Decreases grade retention
  • Boosts high school graduation rates
  • Raises participants’ earnings and taxes paid
  • Cuts crime rates
  • Lessens welfare use
  • Improves health and behavior

What are the dangers of online pre-K?

The early childhood experts’ biggest fear is that governments and foundations will put their money into online pre-K, claiming that they’re offering something as good as the real thing; and the result will be to threaten much needed investment in actual high-quality pre-K, widen the achievement gap, and increase inequality.

During the Great Recession of 2008 and beyond, state revenues—including funding for pre-K—dropped, and Betsy DeVos and President Trump have repeatedly proposed huge cuts to the Education Department’s budget. Fortunately, so far Congress has vetoed their requests.

At the moment, only a third of four-year-olds and 5.7 percent of three-year-olds are getting the helping hand that public preschool can give them. Oklahoma leads the way by providing high-quality universal pre-K. But every state has a responsibility to make real, relationship-based pre-K available to its young children, and according to the “State of Preschool 2018” report, at the current anemic rate of growth it will take 20 years to serve 50 percent of four-year-olds.

 What is the solution?

The 2008 recession has taken a toll on the nation’s birthrate and immigration numbers, which have been falling steadily ever since. Schools—whose financing depends on the number of children they enroll—will soon find themselves with too many classrooms and teachers and too few pupils, therefore too little money.

But this fall, when yesterday’s four-year-olds have turned into five-year-olds, the states will somehow find the funds to transport these children to kindergartens in their local public schools.

Isn’t the obvious solution to the budget and the pre-K problem to prepare the empty school spaces for public pre-K and put the next cohort of four-year-olds onto the buses with the new kindergartners?

With its focus on pre-reading skills, the Upstart program might be a useful addition to the preschool curriculum, especially for children from low-income families. But using it or any other online pre-K program by itself, as a substitute for real-life public pre-K, would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. All children deserve the opportunity to engage with their peers and participate in a high-quality, play-based pre-K learning experience guided by trained professional early childhood educators.

What do you think?

Does the idea of online pre-K make any sense to you? Let us know about your thoughts and experiences.