NAEYC is right: there is no such thing as “online preschool”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children says that online preschool "is not, and never will be" the high-quality early childhood education all kids -- and communities! -- need and deserve.

Rhian Evans Allvin, the CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, has taken a clear stance about “online preschool” programs like UPSTART, which claim to prepare children for kindergarten: they are not, and will never be, preschool. In a powerful piece in NAEYC’s journal Young Children, Allvin writes:

Preschool is about relationships and the learning that happens between children and teachers and among the children themselves. While there are tools online that can support children’s learning, the reality is that there is no online equivalent to preschool.

Without those face-to-face relationships, “online preschool” programs simply are not preschool. But it’s not just the lack of face-to-face relationships that make the conflation of online learning programs with preschool dangerous or misleading. It’s also that online programs don’t offer any of the community and family benefits that real, in-person, high-quality early education offers. As Evans Allvin explains,

Using public dollars intended for early childhood education to give children access to a 15-minute-per-day online program does not expand access to preschool. It doesn’t address the crisis in the supply of quality, affordable child care. It doesn’t help parents participate in the workforce. And it doesn’t help families choose an “alternative” option for or version of pre-K because it is something else entirely. To what extent we want to encourage parents to access online literacy and math curricula to help their 3- and 4-year-olds prepare for school is a conversation for another column. In this one, the only question is whether these technology-based programs can be “preschool”— and the answer is no.

Evans Allvin also says that although programs like UPSTART claim to be aligned with NAEYC’s standards for early childhood learning, they aren’t. And again,it’s not just that they aren’t – it’s that they can’t be: 

[I]t is impossible for an online program to meet NAEYC program accreditation standards because those standards occur in program environments where well-prepared early childhood educators are building personal relationships with each child, helping families meet their unique needs, and instigating a wide variety of rich learning opportunities across all domains of development—including facilitating small- and large-group activities in which children learn from each other. The NAEYC standards measure relationships; curriculum; teaching; assessment of child progress; health; staff competencies, preparation, and support; families; community relationships; physical environment; and leadership and management. Under each standard are dozens of specific assessment items, for a total of more than 350 criteria on which programs are assessed. Early childhood programs (center- and school-based) spend months preparing for the accreditation process. They go through extensive portfolio preparation and policy documentation, and the entire professional staff is involved in preparing their classrooms for a site visit. It is misleading at best to imply that an online experience that lasts 15 to 20 minutes per day is in any way comparable to a high-quality, full-day, full-year early childhood education program.

“Online preschool” programs like UPSTART, Evans Allvin concludes, “should not be funded with public taxpayer dollars that have been designated for high-quality early childhood education. Taxpayer dollars need to fund—and we need to continue to fight for—the kind of early childhood education that evidence shows supports families and truly prepares children for school and for life.”

Programs like UPSTART are expanding every day, aided by underfunded education budgets, flashy marketing, and a misunderstanding of what kids really need to learn and thrive. And as we’ve previously pointed out, the shortcomings of programs like UPSTART won’t be felt equally: low-income families, families of color, and rural families will be saddled with low-quality and potentially harmful online programs, while their wealthier counterparts continue to enjoy the high-quality early education so critical to kids’ wellbeing.

To protect and expand real early education, sign on to our campaign with Defending the Early Years to #RejectOnlinePreK and demand funding for the real, high-quality education that all kids, families, and communities need and deserve!