Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra’s proposal for free early childhood education involves a digital, cloud-based learning program pitched by a for-profit company.
On Nov. 8, Ybarra told an audience at the Idaho School Boards Association’s annual convention that she was developing a “free, read my lips, free” early childhood education program “for all Idaho kids.”
Ybarra didn’t reveal the details at the time. But on Monday, Ybarra and State Board of Education President Linda Clark helped facilitate a presentation from the Lakewood, N.J.-based corporation Achieve3000.
Achieve3000 founder, President and CEO Saki Dodelson pledged to offer the digital Smarty Ants program free to all Idaho 4-year olds for five years.
Dodelson said Stanford University and University of California at Berkeley educators developed the program, which is intended to help prepare students to enter school and to improve literacy.
Smarty Ants is an animated learning tool that looks like a cross between a video game and a homework assignment. Children begin by completing a pre-test to determine their skill level. Then the program creates a personalized instruction program that includes built-in assessment tests, games and graduation ceremonies.
Acheive3000 representatives said children can download Smarty Ants free for their Chromebook, iPad or any number of devices, and access the lessons online or offline.
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“We think this is a unique approach, something that maybe we hadn’t thought about before,” Clark said.
No decisions were made Monday.
Some of the dozen education and community leaders in attendance posed questions about how to deploy the program in rural or low-income households with limited Internet access.
“Technology certainly has a place in early learning, but I want to be careful we’re not talking about it as the solution to ensuring our children are entering school with all the skills and the knowledge they need,” said Beth Oppenheimer, executive director for Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children.
Oppenheimer said an online program could serve as one of several building blocks to improve early literacy rates and education. But she said online learning doesn’t build the social, emotional and teamwork skills children will need to succeed in school.
“I’m not sure more screen time is the answer for kids,” Oppenheimer said.
Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, predicted that many families would jump at the chance to take advantage of a free digital learning tool. But he suggested the parents who would be drawn to Smarty Ants might already be heavily engaged in education.
“How do we reach the low-income families who aren’t as engaged?” he asked. “That’s who we are trying to reach.”
Achieve3000 would not charge 4-year-olds for the use of Smarty Ants, Dodelson said. But Achieve3000 does offer a suite of other digital learning tools that are available for purchase.
Achieve3000 already counts at least one Idaho school district, the Jefferson County School District, as a paying customer.
Acheive3000 representatives said Monday they had not considered how much it would cost a school or parents to continue using the program after a child turns 5.
Moving forward, Ybarra and Clark will solicit feedback from those attending Monday’s meeting and consider creating a committee to study Smarty Ants’ proposal.
“This is one of the best opportunities we have in Idaho,” Ybarra said. “I can’t see a reason to say ‘no.’ Free is always good.”
Oppenheimer was more cautious.
“I get nervous when we talk about free,” she said. “My mother told me nothing in life that is hard or good is free.”