The year was 1975 and a public school near our preschool-kindergarten in Baltimore was having an open house. They were featuring innovations in kindergarten education. Since one of my former students was in this kindergarten, I wanted to see what she was experiencing.
It was a fine old building with thick wooden shelves that I coveted for my classroom. But the shelves were empty. Where were the blocks and toys, the art and manipulative materials, and the beloved dress-ups? The children were engaged in learning letters at the blackboard, on a big board game on the floor, and in other ways. When will they play, I wondered, and what will they play with? I was vastly relieved when the teacher said it was time to clean up and have free time. At last. But free time meant getting ditto sheets and circling matching letters.
As far as I’m concerned, kindergarten education has gone downhill ever since – very slowly at first and barely visible, like a tiny snowball that starts small and grows huge over time. In the end it can even set off an avalanche.
The latest push has come from Common Core which requires that children “read emergent texts with purpose and understanding” by the end of kindergarten. Why? Because someone, somewhere (it’s extremely difficult to pin down) has said that if children read at the end of kindergarten they’ll be better readers in fourth grade and beyond. If this were true, someone should tell the top scoring countries on the PISA literacy test, for most of them don’t start formal instruction until children are six or seven.
For years we’ve started academic instruction at five (or earlier), but we don’t have much to show for it. The NAEP scores, now officially called the nation’s report card, have scarcely budged when it comes to reading over a 20 year period. The graphs on the NAEP web site are almost flat lines for fourth and eighth grade reading gains.
The pressure is on to get children reading as early as possible. According to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, only 1% of children could read when they entered kindergarten in 1998. Yet 100% of children are now expected to read at the end of kindergarten. That’s a huge jump. People tell me it can be done. Perhaps, but it seems to take inordinate amounts of effort and time to meet that standard. And much stress is accrued while other important learning is lost or diminished.
A recent study by University of Virginia researchers found that already in 2006 more time was spent on literacy in kindergarten than on science, math, social studies, art and music combined. No wonder kindergarten is called the new first grade. And no wonder we hear from many parents that their children dislike going to kindergarten. It’s boring, it’s stressful, and the risk of failing reading is very real. It can mean a child spends an extra year in kindergarten even when the child is absolutely fine from a developmental perspective.
This past January, I co-authored a report for the Alliance for Childhood, which advocates for children’s healthy development, and Defending the Early Years, an advocacy group for young children. It is called “Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose.” It can be found at www.allianceforchildhood.org. It’s worth reading and sharing. Among its recommendations is that kindergarten standards be removed from Common Core and rethought along developmental lines. It’s time to rethink early education altogether – preschool and kindergarten – and get them back on a sound track with developmentally appropriate goals. If instead, we go forward with Common Core kindergarten standards as they exist now, it will take 15 years or longer before the country can do a proper evaluation of them. In all likelihood, at that point we’ll say, “Well, that didn’t work.”
It’s never easy to admit a mistake about educational policy, but I give Germany a lot of credit for doing so. In the 1970s they were also enamored by the idea of “cognitively oriented kindergartens,” as they called them. Nearly all kindergartens switched from being play-based and experiential to being more like our kindergartens today. But then came a study that compared 50 play-based kindergarten classes with 50 that were cognitively oriented. By fourth grade the children from the play-based programs excelled in all 17 measures used, including academic ones. Germany changed course and returned to play-based education in kindergarten. When will we?
Our children can’t afford for us to wait much longer. They need us to speak up now in schools, with policy makers, on-line, in op-eds, and in letters to the editor. Tell your stories about kindergarten education. I know it takes courage to speak out, but as educators we have lots of courage. We couldn’t teach without it.