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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 09/21/2009

The Problem That Is Kindergarten

By Valerie Strauss

Art. Mathematics. Music. Physical Education. Reading/Language Arts. Science. Social Studies.

Guess the school year in which kids first tackle that lineup.

Third grade? Second grade? First?

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

That’s what 5-year-olds in kindergarten are doing in Montgomery County, Md., public schools--and in many other districts around the country.

A study recently released by the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood showed that kids in 258 full-day kindergarten classes in New York City and Los Angeles spend 2 to 3 hours per day instructing and testing children in literacy and math—with only 30 minutes per day or less for play. Teachers report the same thing in other cities and towns. (Here’s a scary story about “pressure cooker kindergarten” in Boston by Patti Hartigan.)

--
I am writing about kindergarten today because several readers asked different versions of the same questions:

What is going on with kindergarten? How academic has it become? What happens to kids who aren’t ready to learn to read and do math in kindergarten?

Obviously, kindergarten classes are not all the same. But there is a huge difference between the place I remember--where I essentially went to play and learn to get along with other kids (which I did with marginal success)--and today's kindergarten, which has become an academic enterprise.

The movement toward turning what should be play time into academic time is several decades old, sparked by the notions that kids are not learning enough at school and that they are capable of starting earlier than long thought.

This decade’s era of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on high-stakes standardized tests, pushed curriculum into lower grades faster than ever.

Now kindergarteners are being taught how to take standardized tests and are often required to sit and work for far longer than their metabolisms can actually tolerate--even though there is no research that proves that foisting formal academics on such young kids has any long-term benefit.

If you are surprised that things have gotten to this state, don’t forget that not a single teacher was invited to help write the No Child Left Behind law, which dramatically changed K-12 education.

Educators know what 5-year-olds can and can't do. Though many youngsters may seem more sophisticated than they did 20 or 30 years ago, their developmental phases have not really changed.

Some of the characteristics of 5-year-olds--which are listed in “Yardsticks, Children in the Classroom Ages 4 to 14,” by Chip Wood--are in direct violation of what kids are being asked to do.

Research has shown that children of this age learn best through active exploration of materials such as clay, sand, water, blocks and other manipulatives. Yet these things have been removed from many kindergarten classes.

Research has shown that children who engage in socio-dramatic play have better language skills, better social skills, more empathy, are less aggressive and have more self-control than children who do not. Yet the Alliance for Childhood study reported that some teachers say the curriculum does not allow time for any play.

And we know that kids don’t all develop at the same time and in the same way. Yet today kids who leave kindergarten without some reading ability are already behind. And the poor child who can't read by the end of first grade is branded a failure.

I do not exaggerate. I’ve heard this from teachers for years.

Many teachers are frustrated but fear they will lose their jobs if they try to buck the system. Educator Jim Horn blogged that teachers should join together to advocate for humane education--and to do everything they must to preserve their students’ childhood. If they cannot, he suggests, “they should, indeed, quit.”

You may think that is unreasonable. Perhaps it is. However, what is truly unacceptable is what policymakers are forcing on kids.

What can parents do? The Alliance for Childhood has some suggestions, which include:
*If the testing is causing your child anxiety, find out if you are allowed to decline to participate.
*Talk to your teacher and principal.
*Discuss with your PTA whether there is anything the organization can do to help teachers come up with alternative assessments.
--
In a letter to parents, Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast wrote:

“The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is committed to providing each child with the essential skills and knowledge he or she needs to succeed. Fulfillment of this goal must begin at an early age. The MCPS Kindergarten curriculum is designed to engage children in the learning process, provide them with a sense of accomplishment, and help them understand the value of what they are learning.”

Would that his letter have said something like this:

“The Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) is committed to providing each child with the essential skills and knowledge he or she needs to succeed. Fulfillment of this goal must begin at an early age--but we recognize that robbing children of play and forcing them to become involved in the test-taking regimen that now guides K-12 education is literally detrimental to their health.

"The MCPS Kindergarten curriculum is, therefore, designed to allow children to work hard at play that engages their imaginations and gives them time to invent stories, solve problems, improve social skills, and gain language skills. Test time can come later. If you are determined to subject your kindergartener to math worksheets and weekly quizzes, find another school system.”

TEACHERS AND PARENTS: Please share thoughts, experiences, recommendations about the present and future of kindergarten.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 21, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
Tags:  kindergarten, montgomery county public schools, standardized tests  
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Comments

This story makes me thankful we're currently living in Europe. My four year old just started in kindergarten equivalent, and, while they are learning to write, it's primarily about learning through play, making friends, and running around in the attached-to-classroom outside play area whenever they want throughout the day, plus three scheduled half hours of outdoor play over the wider school grounds. My son loves it!

Posted by: raynecloud | September 21, 2009 7:35 AM | Report abuse

Column: "And we know that kids don’t all develop at the same time and in the same way. Yet today kids who leave kindergarten without some reading ability are already behind. And the poor child who can't read by the end of first grade is branded a failure."

This ties in with so many other articles and columns on education. No matter what age we're talking about, the individual learning styles and skills of children becomes a critical element in deciding what's best for them. I know some kids who would have thrived in the Montgomery County kindergarten format, obviously Montgomery County must know many more. Those same kids, who could read before kindergarten, became less excited about school after attending a kindergarten that didn't teach them anything as everyone around them claimed it would. Hence, my strong support for more options in schools. This issue doesn't even touch the concept of "gifted education" at age 5, it's simply to say that it is true that kids develop at different rates; but let's not risk losing the ones who are academically ready for Montgomery County's kindergarten to wait for those who are not. If some kids need a school like the one described by "raynecloud" above, then create a single school in each district that resembles it. We spend too much time complaining over the wrong fit. I'd rather hear us complain about school bus logistics and use such companies as First Student Transportation. (www.firststudentinc.com/route-planning)

You should have mentioned how much homework these 5-year olds get.

Posted by: doglover6 | September 21, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

I spent the day on Friday in my grandchild's kindergarten class. I came away so disheartened. First, the teacher handed out papers and told the children to write their names on the top--they have not been taught to write ANYTHING yet! The noise level was unbelievable the entire day. There is no way they can learn anything in that environment. Exercise seemed to consist of the girls jumping rope (inside the classroom) while the boys ran wild. At no time did they get to go outside for play. According to the teacher Prince George's County does not give them any play time. What are we trying to do to these children? They are five years old--not fifteen. Why is there a push to make them grownups before their time? Why can't they be kids?

Posted by: mbrumble | September 21, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

"...are often required to sit and work for far longer than their metabolisms can actually tolerate--"

uh...what? "Metabolism" is the amount of energy burnt by your body to maintain it and performing different bodily tasks. Is the author actually trying to argue that a body 'at rest' requires more energy than hyper-active play?!! Seriously?

If that were true, a majority of children in the learning-centric kindergartens would be pin-thin and traditional play-time kindergartners would overwhelmingly be obese!!!

Posted by: WilyArmadilla | September 21, 2009 10:11 AM | Report abuse

My son attends kindergarten in Howard County (PS). I am happy that he is receiving an education that preps him academically as well as keeps him interested through active exploration as recommended. Keep up the good work HCPS!

Posted by: smirkman | September 21, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

This just reinforces my feeling that what MCPS says in their nice memos and public meetings and what happens in their classrooms are two very different things.

Posted by: sea1943 | September 21, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Our son had a great kindergarten experience in Montgomery County Public Schools last year, and is now enjoying first grade, too. I can't speak about all the students in his (delightfully small) class of 14 -- very diverse by race/ethnicity, family income, parents' education, kids' personalities -- but I think I'd say for most of them that they learned, they played, they moved around the classroom to "free choice" stations, they bonded as a class. Work and play -- serious academic/developmental goals and natural exploration -- were merged beautifully, in my opinion. I liked what I saw, and it worked for my child.

Posted by: splank1 | September 21, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

As a MoCo parent with children in kindergarten and 2nd grade, I can tell you that the playtime-oriented kindergarten that we all remember is long gone. Tonight, I will go to the school for the first of four Kindergarten Math Nights this year (we did the same when our 2nd grader was in K, it was new his year). The teachers will discuss the math curriculum for the year, and on future Math Nights, we will take home materials for games to play with our children that reinforce the classroom work.

And you are so right about children who can't read by the end of K being behind - and it applies to math levels, too. The intensity of the curriculum at these first few years of school is scary sometimes.

I just wish there was more time left in the day for phys ed, music, and art more than once a week. That's very frustrating.

Posted by: princessbuttercup | September 21, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

again, I'm thankful my husband and I decided to put our children into Montessori schools through at least the 3rd grade (my daughter is currently in 7th grade there). I am adamant that children younger than 3rd grade should NOT get homework.

It's ludicrous that schools demand young children (5,6,7 year olds) to sit still for 5 hours a day without any creative outlet and then to pile on the agony, demand that they sit still (again!) and focus on the same d-d work at night. Where's the childhood fun?!

And people wonder why children don't understand freeplay? When do they get to 'practice' that?

Posted by: slackermom | September 21, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

princessbuttercup, what you've described is pretty scary. MoCo schools expect kindergartners to learn so much math that parents are given what sounds like a crash course in math and expected to teach their child, because there isn't enough time to teach (and I include reinforcing lessons as teaching) during the school day?

Wow.

Sometimes, I'm very happy not to be a parent. I would have serious issues with how my child(ren) was being taught. Maybe Montessori education is the way to go.

Posted by: RedBirdie | September 21, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Ugh. So here's the real question- are the kids today, who spend their kindergarten and first grade years filling out worksheets and sitting at desks ANY smarter or better educated in the long run than kids were 50 years ago? Is there any evidence of this at all??

My 4.5 year old is a reasonably bright kid. She can read, she's working on writing, etc. But she can't sit still for 3 hours a day, and no one should expect her to! I just wish we could afford montessori school for her and her siblings. Sometimes I think the public schools are less interested in educating kids and more interested in turning them into mindless automatons who sit at a desk all day and never cause any trouble.

Posted by: floof | September 21, 2009 12:23 PM | Report abuse

My now 14 year old son attended a private kindergarten for 6 hours a day where he learned to read by the time he graduated, 6 years old and he new how to read! He also got to be a 5 year old with lots of playtime with his friends. They went on 2 field trips a month, one of them being the local library. There were 20 kids in his class with 2 teachers. They had 4 kids per table and learned at their own levels. He's been in public school since 1st grade and does really well. I am so very thankful we invested $550 a month for his education in a private school where he had the opportunity to be challenged.

Posted by: NanFan56 | September 21, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

RedBirdie, I should clarify: I don't think all MoCo schools do these math nights; in fact, I think our school may be one of the few that does.

The program was prompted by the school system deciding that kids needed one more year of math than they were getting by the time they graduated, so they are trying to push the curriculum down to accomplish that goal (or at least that's what we were told two years ago!). My now-2nd grader was in the first group at our school to get this push down. So he's been taught some concepts of each higher grade along with current grade concepts. They test on all, but are only grading the on-level skills. I am interested in seeing how the push-down that started two years ago has affected the current kindergarten math curriculum. Guess I'll find out tonight!

And regarding our Math Nights, I do appreciate that the school and the staff are trying to help parents help their children reach higher. We are in a very diverse and broad socio-economic neighborhood and many of these kids and parents truly benefit by this extra effort.

(And while I may find the math nights inconvenient, it is at least a little time with the teacher, because let's face it, trying to get a 5 y.o. to tell you about what they are doing in school is impossible!)


Posted by: princessbuttercup | September 21, 2009 1:03 PM | Report abuse

I think we have to consider the years *before* kindergarten. There are many children that are getting some kind of classroom experience before they reach kindergarten. Some are paying for center-based childcare, some are paying for preschool, some are in Head Start. These kids show up on the first day of Kindergarten having already done some form of school. Partially it is academics-- what else are you supposed to do with a group of children than the alphabet song, counting games, and lots of storytimes? But they are also getting the crucial socializing skills as well: following a daily schedule (even if it's from one type of play or activity center to another) learning to follow the rules of the room, learning to share and respect others. As more and more kids reach kindergarten having this experience, it makes sense to me that kindergarten would be different from what it was a generation ago. There seems to be a great deal of support for preschool-type offerings for kids. Governor Kaine wanted to offer Pre K to all VA children. This also ties in with something doglover6 said above. One of the biggest challenges is taking ALL of the kids in a kindergarten class, who arrive on that first day with so many different experiences and skills, and finding a way to nurture and challenge each of them to reach their full potential. Good luck and best wishes to all kindergarten teachers!

Posted by: firstchap | September 21, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

This story suggests a very serious problem in education that is rarely acknowledged or discussed. In fact it's possible that this problem is the primary cause of our less-than-stellar system of education. It is this:

Education is a field where established research about how children learn is often ignored with impunity. This is probably due to the fact that decisions are being made by powerful politicians and philanthropists, and not educators or develpmental psychologists.

In regard to the education of five-year-olds, we have known for a very long time that they learn through play, imitation and interaction with other children and adults. For example, yesterday my five- year-old grandson sat on the carpet for over an hour constructing a complex model with Legos. As he was doing this, he frequently glanced at the instruction sheet. Now and then he'd ask his mother or me for help. We played the role of "teacher" by providing him with the Legos and giving guidance when needed. Anyone at all familiar with a young child would know that my grandson was seriously engaged in the kind of learning that leads to jobs like engineering later on. This type of task is so much more complex than a worksheet or even most lessons delivered by a teacher. Basically, the child is programmed by human nature to learn because it's his survival mechanism. It's what people do. The wise teacher takes advantage of this.

Not only is the present-day kindergarten ignoring the natural learning of the young child, but it is filling his day with inappropriate activities (test prep, phonics drills, etc.) that are actually counter- productive and can lead to a lifelong dislike for school and formal instruction. How many children who "hate reading" were turned off to it in kindergarten when they were made to feel unsuccessful at it?

Many older people have fond memories of kindergarten, which seemed like a child's paradise until the early 1990's. Many youngsters would walk into a brightly decorated classroom and gasp with joy at the sight of large blocks, playhouses, puzzles, tricycles and art supplies. Now, many public kindergartens have been stripped of all these things that bring joy to the hearts of little children and invite them to participate in learning.

In Germany, where the kindergarten was founded, they tried making it more academic in the early 1990s, but discovered that the children made less progress later on. The traditional kindergarten was reinstated several years later. Hopefully, our experiment with "academic" kindergartens will soon be over as well.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | September 21, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Bravo Valerie! Five-year-olds haven't changed over the years. They are small children and need to play. First grade at age six is soon enough to start academic learning, and even then, kids need some breaks to just run around. It is the academic elite pinheads who have transformed schools from a learning experience in basic subjects like reading, writing, arithmatic, history, and geography into a place where many things are "covered", but where learning is shortchanged. There is also a strong trend toward indoctrination in political views, which is inappropriate in public schools.

Posted by: allamer1 | September 21, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for making the point that no teachers were involved in creating NCLB. No teacher would be sadistic or stupid enough to expect 4 and 5 year-olds to sit in chairs and learn to read and write all day. Policy decisions like that are made by posturing politicians and corporate executives who make money off reading programs and the standardized test industry.

Linda/retired teacher makes a very important point about kindergarten in Germany. In Germany, as well as Scandinavian countries, children do not receive formal literacy training (phonics, spelling) until they are 6 or 7 years old. They are exposed to books and are read to, but they are not expected to begin reading or writing until first grade. By then, nearly all are truly developmentally ready to read, and very few children have problems with it. And the skills they learn through physical play and discovery activities before that are vital to later academic success.

Posted by: aed3 | September 21, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for making the point that no teachers were involved in creating NCLB. No teacher would be sadistic or stupid enough to expect 4 and 5 year-olds to sit in chairs and learn to read and write all day. Policy decisions like that are made by posturing politicians and corporate executives who make money off reading programs and the standardized test industry. The same people accuse teachers of being lazy or incompetent if they object to these unsound policies.

Linda/retired teacher makes a very important point about kindergarten in Germany. In Germany, as well as Scandinavian countries, children do not receive formal literacy training (phonics, spelling) until they are 6 or 7 years old. They are exposed to books and are read to, but they are not expected to begin reading or writing until first grade. By then, nearly all are truly developmentally ready to read, and very few children have problems with it. And the skills they learn through physical play and discovery activities before that are vital to later academic success.

Posted by: aed3 | September 21, 2009 2:29 PM | Report abuse

allamer1, we are all giving our opinions here (which by the way echo those of my grandson's teacher) but what can be done to circumvent the rules set down by the Board of Education? The teachers must teach by those rules. I for one would like to see some of this stuff changed. A five year old should not be expected to sit still for six hours; they don't know how to do anything for six hours. It's also pretty pitiful when a grandmother and a mother can't figure out kindergarten homework!

Posted by: mbrumble | September 21, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I really support the Montessori philosophy. In short, children do not sit down in traditional learning style and listen to the teacher (lecture). Instead, they are encouraged to explore materials and think on their own. Children engage in what they are most interested in; however, will be guided by the teacher to explore all materials. Nature is part of the classroom so children are outside everyday. Reading and math are taught, but not in the traditional fashion - math consists of numbers, beads,fraction rod - all fun but learning.

My 2 year old just started the program and is engaging in plant watering and window cleaning (to stregthen hands for writing) and other life skills. I just wish there were more public montessori schools, particularly in P.G. Maryland.

Posted by: NatJBest | September 21, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

I find it interesting that in Sweden, Finland, and other countries where academics aren't introduced until age seven, and where there is little homework throughout the school career, high schoolers consistently score higher on international achievement tests than they do in the U.S. and the U.K. In Scandinavian countries, children age six and under spend their "school" days exploring the outdoors in all kinds of weather, developing skills such as empathy and cooperation through supervised imaginative play, listening to and acting out stories, and participating in artistic and musical activities. This, to me, is a well-rounded, age-appropriate education for young children.

My daughter turned five in August. Instead of putting her into the MCPS kindergarten as soon as she was deemed old enough, I filled out a form citing "immaturity," so she could have what I consider to be a more age-appropriate experience this year: a half-day program at a nature-based preschool. Some families I know have decided to homeschool or to send their children to alternative private schools for the same reason. Unfortunately, an extra year of preschool, homeschooling, and private school are not feasible options for many families. I would like to see the public school system take a step back from its testing obsession and develop a curriuclum that's truly in the best interest of young children.

Posted by: fallingleaves | September 29, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

My son started kindergarten 4 weeks ago and we had our first P/T conference tonight. She showed us test scores, already! He did great, but I wonder how he feels about being tested? I'll ask, and also look around at other schools. But these kids get 15 mins of recess, and half hour of play - that's it! And what happened to child-centered curriculum? Is there any room for spontaneity in the teacher's work? I feel bad for my son's teacher, and plan to meet with the principal. Also looking at alternative options. Yes, we need HUMANE education, not hyper academics. I'm with you!

Posted by: MegD | October 1, 2009 10:44 PM | Report abuse

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