High-quality Pre-K programs are widely recognized for their positive effect on the social, emotional and academic development of young children. They develop more advanced language, pre-math and social skills, and make an easier adjustment to kindergarten. And the benefits of Pre-K last into adulthood.
That’s why we must provide every opportunity we can for all children to access and benefit from high-quality preschool programming.
One opportunity worth exploring is a proposed digital early learning pilot program in North Carolina, which is designed to better prepare at-risk youth for kindergarten. The state is looking at Waterford Upstart because it has been successfully employed in several other states. In Utah, for example, an independent study determined that children showed positive gains when they used the program at home before starting kindergarten, even when they were compared to other children who were enrolled in high-quality public and private preschools.
Regardless of whether the program is Waterford Upstart or other high-quality alternatives such as Khan Academy Kids and Learn with Homer, the overall goal is the same. Digital tools may help to augment high-quality early learning programs for those children who cannot take advantage of, or access, in-person offerings.
North Carolina’s in-person program, NC Pre-K, enrolls more than 29,000 children. But thousands more are on waiting lists to get in. The North Carolina General Assembly has said it remains committed to increasing funds for NC Pre-K and eradicating the waitlist, and ensuring full funding for NC Pre-K is incredibly important.
But even if NC Pre-K is fully funded, there will still be thousands of at-risk children who are left out. Despite the fact that several states have increased funding for Pre-K programs over the last several years, 40 percent of four-year-olds and 64 percent of three-year-olds still do not attend preschool in the United States, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Challenges cited include lack of available space, transportation, health issues—or simply that parents prefer to keep their children at home. Regardless of the reason, the state simply won’t reach every child who needs access to early learning through in-person schools alone.
Barriers to Pre-K also disproportionately affect low-income, minority and rural learners. We cannot leave those students with a readiness gap that will impact learning and achievement for years to follow.
This is why every state, including North Carolina, must look for alternative methods to deliver high-quality Pre-K to these children who cannot attend in-person schools. Parent-involved and technology-supported programs can deliver results. According to third-party evaluations of programs like the one proposed in North Carolina, children who participate experience growth outcomes that are 2 to 3 times higher than their peers who do not attend preschool. These gains are consistent across all sub-groups, including special-education, minority, low-income and English-learner populations. A similar pilot program in South Carolina showed that students score higher than non-participating peers in reading, phonics, comprehension and language concepts.
Concerns over using technology to deliver preschool education often focus on how much time children spend on screens. However, programs like Khan Academy Kids and Waterford Upstart recommend that students use them on average of 15 to 20 minutes a day, which is well below the 1-hour daily limit for 4-year-olds as recommended by the World Health Organization. These programs also heavily encourage and support adult involvement and provide coaching for students and their parents to ensure that they have thoughtful, directed ways to engage with their children and empower them to learn.
NC Pre-K and other organizations working to support early childhood play a vital role in preparing children for kindergarten. We applaud and commend their efforts and success. But high-quality digital tools can also play a role to reach families who do not have other options. Technology-enhanced preschool programs can be part of the mix of solutions that states use to ensure that all children, regardless of geography or socio-economic status, have the foundation they need to succeed.