Utah Tries Online Preschool, Mulls Expansion

Published March 6, 2014

Utah legislators are debating whether to expand the state’s digital UPSTART preschool program or allocate more funding for traditional pre-kindergarten classroom education. At issue is how digital learning compares in effectiveness with in–person preschool.

Sen. Aaron Osmond (R-Jordan) introduced Senate Bill 42 on January 16. It requests an additional $6 million to expand programs for at-risk preschoolers and would fund computer labs outside regular school hours. Sen. Stuart Adams (R-Layton) is asking the state for an additional $1 million to $2 million to expand the UPSTART program, which was allocated $2.2 million for the 2013-2014 school year.

In its fifth year of educating Utah preschoolers, UPSTART currently instructs 1,500 students. Another 3,700 are pre-enrolled for the 2014-15 school year. Students are supposed to spend 15 minutes every day on what essentially looks like a learning game, where cartoon animals help them sound out letters and words and count.

Utah Sen. Howard Stephenson (R-Salt Lake) says a third-party analysis found UPSTART students “showing twice to three-times the growth of students in traditional preschool programs. This includes phonetic awareness, colors, shapes, letters, sounds, science and even basic statistics.”

Reading by Kindergarten
The Utah-based Waterford Institute, which developed and runs UPSTART, was recently awarded an $11.5 million federal grant to expand into rural Utah. Sen. Adams is asking for more money to fund it along the state’s unserved Wasatch Front.

The online preschool developed after a Pew Trust-organized conference in Big Sky, Montana, several years ago, Stephenson said.

“Key players from our State Office of Education (SOE) discussed for three days how best to meet the needs of four-year-olds in our state,” he said, noting a plan to require preschool “would be adding a 14th grade” to the state’s K-12 system, which he said “would make it harder to stretch Utah’s education dollars.”

Utah currently has the nation’s highest birthrate, making “another demand on funding extremely difficult,” Stephenson noted, because of the high child-to-taxpayer ratio. This is one of the reasons Utah is the nation’s most economical spender on K-12 education, at $6,000 per student. The SOE requested proposals for educational software for children to use at home or in daycare. Waterford’s was one of two proposals it received, and it ultimately won the contract.

Stephenson says UPSTART is highly successful, and many students involved in it “are generally entering kindergarten already reading, and many kindergartners are placed in first-grade reading groups.” He said the program helps address the “huge number of students who are not reading at grade level by third grade.”

Bringing Preschool Back ‘Into the Home’
Pre-kindergarten digital learning could be an inexpensive way to teach young students, says Julia Freeland, an education research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, a research institute in San Mateo, California.

“There is a burgeoning market of businesses building on sharing economies,” she wrote on the institute’s blog. “These businesses use technology platforms to facilitate peer-to-peer rentals or sharing through businesses like city bikeshares, Airbnb, or GoodShuffle. Taken in the pre-K context, an enabling technology to facilitate sharing could expand access to sharing and coordinating childcare or educational resources at a low transaction cost. This platform could then grow to serve all sorts of community renting, sharing, or coordinating functions.”

UPSTART “is a perfect complement to programs such as Head Start,” said Diane Weaver, Waterford’s marketing director. “We have several Head Start centers that use the same Waterford adaptive learning software as UPSTART offers in the home.”

Weaver added: “The difference is that while Head Start focuses on the whole child and less on cognitive development, UPSTART focuses only on the cognitive preparation needed for kindergarten and reading readiness. Not every child has access to preschool centers, and some parents prefer to keep children at home until kindergarten. This is especially true in rural areas, which accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. children. UPSTART allows Waterford to be wherever the children need us to be. When a child does not have access to a center, school, or district with Waterford curriculum, UPSTART brings it into the home.”

Personalized Learning Through Technology
A technical evaluation of UPSTART’s third year in Utah, conducted by the Evaluation and Training Institute, concluded UPSTART was seven times more effective than traditional preschool programs. Research on preschool programs typically finds their effects fade after approximately four years.

The ETI report also found children using UPSTART scored higher on two standardized reading tests, Brigance and Bader. Test results from UPSTART children grew twice as fast as control groups on the Brigance test, and three times as fast as control groups on the Bader test.

Although UPSTART focuses on cognitive skill mastery in reading, math, and science, parents have noted non-cognitive advantages as well, including confidence building, joy of learning, and English language learning, Weaver said. This type of learning “comes from the one-to-one delivery and safe environment that personalized learning through technology provides,” she explained.

On the Internet

“Utah Senate Bill 42: Early Childhood Education,” Sen. Aaron Osmond, Jan. 16, 2014: http://le.utah.gov/~2014/bills/static/SB0042.html

“Can Pre-K Blaze the Way to Disruption?” Julia Freeland, The Christensen Institute, Feb. 11, 2014: http://www.christenseninstitute.org/can-pre-k-blaze-the-way-to-disruption/

“Utah UPSTART Program Evaluation Program Impacts on Early Literacy: Third Year Results,” Cohort 3 Technical Report, Evaluation and Training Institute, March 2013: http://le.utah.gov/interim/2013/pdf/00003110.pdf