Nationwide, approximately 5.8 million low-income, very young children are unprepared for kindergarten, according to recent reports. One early childhood technology program is proving a promising way to fight this problem.
A recent study shows children who used Waterford UPSTART, an at-home, computer-based education program, the year before kindergarten saw immediate positive gains—and continued to outperform state averages on standardized tests through fourth grade.
UPSTART is an at-home kindergarten readiness program created by the nonprofit research center Waterford Institute. It combines Waterford’s adaptive, personalized learning software with a high-touch family engagement program.
Nearly 20,000 preschool-age children over seven years have used the program in Utah, where it’s funded by the state as a tool to prepare children for kindergarten, especially those who are low-income, at-risk or in hard-to-reach geographic areas.
In April, an independent study commissioned by the Utah State Office of Education showed “UPSTART participation had a large impact on students’ early literacy skill development.” Effect sizes are calculated as no effect, small (0.2), medium (0.5), and large (0.8). On two common early literacy tests, the Bader and Brigance, UPSTART produced large effects of .95 and .81, respectively.
“UPSTART children scored significantly higher on 11 of the 13 Brigance and Bader subtests on the post-test, showing strong empirical evidence that UPSTART was successful helping children develop key early literacy skills,” the report says.
What’s more, those positive effects have staying power for a broad swath of children. According to the research, UPSTART students continually outperformed state averages in DIBELS and SAGE testing in grades first through fourth. And all children benefited from UPSTART, including English language learners, special education and low-income kids, the report showed.
This latest study reaffirmed what previous annual research reports had shown: all children using Waterford software make important cognitive gains—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, geographic locale and whether or not they had additional preschool.
How it Works
UPSTART participants are asked to spend 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week using the software, which adapts reading, math and science activities, books and songs to each child’s skill level. Qualifying families that need a computer and Internet are provided those for free during the program—closing both academic and technology gaps for the most at-risk populations.
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.
Every family is partnered with an UPSTART representative who monitors their child’s progress throughout the year. Families receive a weekly email with program info, offline learning activity suggestions, and a usage report, and have access to live help by phone or email.
There’s no question a caregiver in the home is a child’s first teacher. But too often, the family doesn’t know what their children need to prepare for success in kindergarten or lack the resources to support preparation.
The UPSTART program brings together powerful personalized software with direct support, training and resources for the family. Families give it rave reviews: An overwhelming 99.4 percent say they’d recommend UPSTART to family and friends in post-program evaluations, and 99.3 percent say they felt UPSTART helped prepare their child for kindergarten.
Their anecdotal take is borne out with the latest research findings that suggest UPSTART effectively gives all children a strong academic start and helps close the education gap early for those at risk.
Other groups are taking notice. UPSTART received a 2013 Investing in Innovation (i3) grant from the U.S. Dept. of Education to expand the program to rural children in Utah. And more states are interested. South Carolina recently did a pilot test of the program yielding the same positive results, and Idaho is conducting a pilot test this academic year.
“We believe all children, particularly those who are most at risk, need access to experiences that increase the likelihood they are prepared for success in kindergarten,” Benjamin Heuston, Waterford’s President, said. “UPSTART is proving to be one very successful way to do that.”