Early Childhood Advocates Call On The Audacious Project to Reconsider Major Award for Online Preschool

Date of Release: 

Friday, April 12, 2019

Contact: 
David Monahan, CCFC: david@commercialfreechildhood.org; (617) 896-9397

Early Childhood Advocates Call On The Audacious Project to Reconsider Major Award for Online Preschool
A TED philanthropy project would widen educational inequality and deprive children of the hands-on preschool experiences they deserve.

BOSTON, MA – April 12, 2019 – Early childhood advocates are calling on The Audacious Project, housed at TED and designed to fund ideas for social change, to postpone plans to designate Waterford UPSTART, an online “preschool” program, as one of the participants in its funding program for 2019.  Award winners will be announced at TED2019 in Vancouver on April 16. Last year’s award winners averaged $63 million in new funding. According to a Waterford representative, the funding will allow UPSTART to dramatically increase the number of children enrolled in its program. 

In their call for The Audacious Project to postpone funding, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Defending the Early Years (DEY) point to their October 2018 Position Statement on Online Preschool, which has been endorsed by more than 100 experts in child development and early education. The experts and advocates say that online preschool programs like UPSTART are poor substitutes for high-quality early education, and that funding online programs instead of high-quality early education will make inequality worse, not better. 

“There is a tremendous need for universal pre-K, and it’s admirable that The Audacious Project wants to address educational inequalities, but online preschool is not the answer,” said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, EdD, Professor Emerita at Lesley University and DEY Senior Advisor. “Kids learn by playing, exploring, and interacting with peers and caring adults – not by memorizing letters, numbers, and colors presented to them on screens. Children who receive UPSTART’s screen-based version of a preschool experience will be disadvantaged compared to children from more resourced communities who have play-based, experiential early education. A truly audacious project would take the funding intended for these online programs and direct it instead to giving low-income, rural, or otherwise underserved children the high quality, face-to-face education they deserve.”  

UPSTART, which started with public funding from the state of Utah and has spread to at least seven other states, claims to promote “kindergarten readiness” through 15 - 20 minutes per day of online instruction. But advocates say that UPSTART’s lessons are poorly designed and developmentally inappropriate. An analysis of one UPSTART lesson by DEY found it was pedagogically unsound, “confusing” and “overloaded with distracting images.” UPSTART also recommends that children wear headphones and complete lessons alone, contrary to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that parents “co-view with your children [and] help children understand what they are seeing.” 

“Online preschool should never be rewarded or considered a legitimate alternative to high-quality early care and education,” said Denisha Jones, PhD, JD, Director of Teacher Education at Trinity Washington University and Director of Organizing for DEY.  “I implore The Audacious Project to reconsider giving money to a screen-based program at a time where early childhood experts are increasingly concerned with screen time and the loss of high-quality interactions between children and educated early childhood teachers. Programs like UPSTART may be less expensive than real universal preschool, but those savings come at the expense of the low-income kids and kids of color they purport to help. We should be investing our money, time, and resources to ensure all children have access to affordable, high-quality, early childhood education.”

Last year, seven of The Audacious Project designees were granted a total of $441 million from partners including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. It is not yet known which groups are funding UPSTART, or exactly how much money the program will receive, but an email from a Waterford PR representative indicated that the award will be enough to “provide an opportunity for every four-year-old to be ready for kindergarten.” (Emphasis in original.) 

The DEY/CCFC letter pointedly states, “We don’t believe your impressive list of funders and partners would be satisfied if their own children spent 75 minutes a week on a computer in isolation as a substitute for face-to-face preschool rooted in caring relationships and social interaction.” It also warns that a major expansion of online preschool could derail the growing movement for real universal preschool. It asks The Audacious Project to postpone the award and meet with advocates to better understand their concerns. 

Added Josh Golin, Executive Director of CCFC, “Over and over, we’ve seen educational technology such as 1:1 programs, virtual charter schools, and personalized learning software falsely marketed as a panacea for inequality. Now the EdTech evangelists have set their sights on preschoolers. Isolated children on computers guided by algorithms can never replicate the joyful exploration and interactions at the core of the preschool experience. We urge The Audacious Project to rethink this award.

The DEY/CCFC letter can be read in full here.