CURMUDGUCATION:  Indiana Welcomes UPSTART Pre-K Cyberschool


You probably thought this was going to be one of those posts where I made fun of some trend in education by extending it to its logical yet absurd extreme. Sadly– I mean, really sadly– that is not the case.

“Seriously, dude. What the hell.”

Meet UPSTART, a company that… well, let me just quote from their home page:

UPSTART is an in-home, technology-delivered kindergarten readiness program that gives preschool-aged children individualized reading, math and science instruction with a focus on reading.

How does it work? Participants get a free computer and free internet, in return for which they to spend fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. The program is Personalized Learning for Tiny Humans:

UPSTART is designed for very young children. It uses large buttons, obvious directions, and support that helps children progress. Each child moves through a personalized learning path that is designed to meet his or her skills and needs. The software assesses the child’s progress at key milestones to determine what type of instruction each child will receive.

The family receives some training, and a personal care representative is standing by if they need help. Teachers are, of course, unnecessary.

UPSTART has been up and running for a while in Utah. I actually wrote about them back then, and has this explanation for why they were getting the legislative boost:

Why has Utah decided to launch this brave new world in which fifteen minutes of computer-and-mouse-time (because if there’s anything three- and four-year-olds are great at, it’s operating a computer mouse)? Well, Utah is one of ten states that doesn’t fund pre-school, and it is at the bottom of the barrel for per-student funding in K-12. So you could explain the appeal of this idea as the sponsor of the bill, State Senator Howard A. Stephenson,  does:

“We want to reach the greatest number of children with the resources that we have,” Stephenson said. “I don’t think we’re being cheap at all. We’re being smart.”

Or you might go with this theory:

“It’s wishful thinking by state legislatures,” said Steven Barnett, the director of the National ­Institute for Early Education ­Research at Rutgers University. “We want preschool, we want to get these great results, but we don’t actually want to spend the money.”

Yeah, why provide expensive high-quality preschool when you can just sign everyone up for some software?

Here’s a promotional video for the program. My favorite parts? Watching a small child try to use a touch pad on a laptop, and the part where we’re assured that UPSTART will provide “program sponsors” with data. Because, you know, it’s never too early to start building your tiny human’s data file, so that the trouble she had picking out vowel sounds when she was four flippin’ years old can follow her around for the rest of her life.

In Indiana, the legislature wants to make UPSTART part of the Pre-K expansion bill.

Senator Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, likes it because cyberschooling promotes family togetherness, and that’s what many Kids These Days are missing. He said, “This really engages the whole family. I just believe it’s a much more wholesome approach that will have a better lasting effect.” The costs is about $1,400 per pupil (all those freebies mentioned above do cost somebody– the taxpayers)– which is a big chunk of money for some learning software. Waterford boast a total 450 hours of lessons, but of course if the learning is personalized, no child will be getting all 450 of those hours, right?. Kenley is the head of the appropriations committee, and a fan of programs like outcomes based funding.

Meanwhile, teachers have spoken out against the proposal:

“Kids need to be together in order to socialize. We need to learn how to raise our hand. We need to learn how to respect other people’s space and time and you can’t do that in front of a computer,” American Federation of Teachers Executive Director Sally Sloan said.

Pre-K can be done in so many beneficial ways, but none of those ways are focused on academic achievement.What four year olds need to do is play, play slightly organized games, play unorganized games, play by themselves, play with others, and also play. If they feel inclined to explore reading or math or science or art or whatever, that should be encouraged. But enforced or required. No, no, no, and also no.

Supporters will say, “Lighten up– we’re only talking about fifteen minutes a day, five days a week.” And I agree that beats some Pre-K classroom where students are expected to sit and study academic subjects for hours, just as being hit in the face with a hammer is better than being assaulted in the chest with a jackhammer.

But UPSTART also gives tiny humans an early close connection with a screen, introduces them to the idea of learning as a chore that must be done to someone else’s satisfaction, and gets the whole family acclimated to being data mined. It’s a sweetheart deal of the Utah-based Waterford company which makes out well whenever it can get legislators to purchase its product in bulk. Is this good use of Indiana taxpayer dollars? I doubt it. If I were an Indiana voter and taxpayer, I think I’d seriously question the aims of any Pre-K program, and I think I’d want my tiny humans to be interacting with real live humans, not software.



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