by Ted Maple, Ph.D., President and CEO, Early Learning Indiana
Hoosiers want pre-K in Indiana. And they want our state to invest. Last year, a statewide public opinion poll found that 7 in 10 voters want to expand pre-K and they want our state to go big. They want high-quality pre-K to be more accessible to Hoosier families because they know that there are numerous benefits. Quality pre-K improves children’s chances in school by helping them develop stronger academic and social skills.
Our state leaders seem to be in agreement. Governor Holcomb, Speaker Bosma and many of our elected leaders are pushing forward bills to expand our current state pre-K program – On My Way Pre-K. Legislators have visited with parents and teachers and toured quality pre-K programs all over the state and like what they see. They see children actively learning and making friends. All facilitated by skilled teachers.
Given all of this, it is surprising that some in the Statehouse are considering investing already limited public dollars in online pre-K programs rather than actual classroom instruction. Online programs, if done correctly, can be a useful supplement to a child’s development, but never a substitute for high-quality classroom learning.
We know quality pre-K, taught by skilled teachers in stimulating classrooms, helps children succeed now and in the future. The most important factor in that success is the teacher. We know, as parents, that our children will learn and thrive and be happy when in the presence of a talented teacher. A great teacher will customize lessons, plan experiences, and facilitate friendships in ways that a computer cannot. There just is no comparison to a good teacher, partnered with a supportive and nurturing parent.
We know that two-thirds of Hoosier four-year-olds are in homes where all parents work. And most families with young children are hurried and stressed. Finding time to log in to a computer program every night would be difficult for many families and impossible for many low-income families, who lack adequate computer and Internet access. We have to address the real challenge and invest in a solution that meets it.
More than 27,000 Hoosier four-year-olds in low-income families still need access to quality pre-K. Thousands of children have to repeat kindergarten every year because they were deemed unready for first grade, often due to social and behavior problems. This costs our state $24 million annually. Too many children are failing in school who might be succeeding had they attended a quality pre-K. If a computer program were the answer, I would be for it. It is not. Actual classroom experience is the best.
Pre-K was the answer for Derick in Bloomington. His mother, Jena, enrolled him in Monroe County’s Fairview School when he turned three, where she worked with his teachers on his reading, math, social and language skills. These efforts helped Derick overcome his shyness and build his self-confidence. Academically, Derick is challenged, but he solves problems and doesn’t give up. “I attribute his early learning experience for building up his confidence,” said his young mother. He is now a thriving second grader.
The best thing we can do for families like Derick and Jena is provide access to affordable, high-quality early childhood education in a classroom setting. Fifteen minutes online per day sounds easy. Too easy. Too limited. It is no substitute for what works: Good teaching. Making friends. Going to school. Substituting this with online pre-K – best suited for families with an abundance of time and resources – is ill-conceived and a wasted opportunity for the majority of working families, especially those with limited means.
Hoosiers aren’t wasteful. We are resourceful. We take pride in ourselves and for what we are capable of accomplishing. Should we spend our resources on online programs born outside Indiana, or should we give parents the opportunity to choose to put their children’s future in the hands of Hoosier teachers? Let’s invest our limited resources on real pre-K for children who need it most. It’s what families want. It’s what voters want. Anything less is not good enough for our children and families.