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Extra Credit: Damaging Changes in Kindergarten?

Dear Extra Credit:

We have two sets of twins who are in fourth grade and kindergarten at a well-regarded public school in Bowie. The difference I see in the four years since my older children were in kindergarten is astounding.
I do not remember the older children having tests in kindergarten. Now they have tests at least monthly in math, reading, social studies and science. The tests are multiple choice so that they can practice filling in little bubbles to be ready for the Maryland State Assessment in three years. For this week's math worksheet, they were required to cut and paste the days of the week in order (acceptable to me) and then explain how they knew their answer was correct (what are they supposed to write for that?).
This year's kindergartners were starting to write sentences by the second month. They started with a simple "I see" and quickly moved up to things such as, "I go to school." They are expected to learn a new sentence each week and write it with a capital letter at the beginning, correct letter formation and spelling, spacing between the words, and a period at the end. Is this really essential for kindergarten?
Four years ago, kindergartners took a rest time for the first half of the year. Now, even the pre-K at our school isn't allowed a rest time. One of my daughters copes well with the long day. The other, who was in Head Start last year (where they had a full hour of rest each afternoon), is tired, cranky and overstimulated.
Both of my daughters' teachers are wonderful and try to work in some fun within the tight constraints of the curriculum. One of the teachers has told me that the kindergarten curriculum is what used to be the first-grade curriculum. What evidence do we have that this pushing is beneficial to the children? While some of the children can handle the pressure well, others cannot. One of my daughters has mastered her kindergarten reading and moved on to first-grade words. The other one struggles to keep up and hates school.
You asked [Jan. 29 column] whether there has been a change in kindergarten, and whether it is hurting our kids. I would answer yes on both counts.
Molly Holloway, Bowie

This approach to kindergarten appears to have produced significant gains in reading and math achievement for students in this age group throughout this region and in other parts of the country. The achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed as a result. I have seen no research confirming your impression of an increase in bad side effects, but they might be there. Anybody have any ideas for preserving those gains with less pain?

Dear Extra Credit:

University of Chicago freshman Josh Lerner's Advanced Placement experience ["Two Radically Different AP Experiences," Feb. 5] is contrary to mine. Learn-by-teaching is an accepted pedagogical technique. It works, too.
I remember back to my freshman year in a flossy Eastern college -- a hick from a public school in the sticks. I had never even heard of calculus before I got to college, and I was floundering in differential calculus. While studying for the midterm exam, I asked a fellow student from Fargo, N.D., for help. He encapsulated the key concept for me in under five minutes, using concrete analogies to farm tractors and implements. I did so well on the exam that when the assistant professor handed back the blue books, he commented on the surprising progress one member of the class had made since the last quiz.
Four years later in law school, student study groups were de rigueur, facilitated by the school's annual distribution of a softbound book containing the preceding year's exams.
Last semester, 50 years later, before an evening seminar, I often sat in Mark's Cafe on the terrace level of the University of Pennsylvania library, where I could overhear the conversations at adjoining tables. Groups of four or five undergraduate classmates clustering around ganged laptops would discuss how class papers could be structured. Same practice and, I hope, the same result.
William Malone, Bethesda

So do I.

Dear Extra Credit:

Those of us who educate our children at home are not interested in debating, "Which is better: public school or home education?" The answer to that question varies, as it depends on so many factors -- the student, the teacher, the school, the student's family. We just want people to understand that home schooling is one of several viable options for educating our offspring.
The parent who chooses to teach her own does not become a martyr to her children's education, as your letter writer ["Parent Says Some Things Can't Be Taught at Home," Jan. 15] mistakenly assumes. Tutoring one's child takes neither the time nor the energy that teaching a classroom full of children would require. And, no matter what educational choice is made, there will be trade-offs.
Choosing a private school, for instance, might entail a long commute and/or a second job on the parents' part; opting to send one's offspring to public school, on the other hand, might require more volunteer hours from the family. Both of these choices find parents helping their children with homework or school projects in the evenings and on weekends. So choosing home education doesn't necessarily mean spending that much more time on one's children's education. Rather, it is simply time spent in different ways.
Why can't we embrace the diversity of the human learning experience instead of pitting ourselves against each other? If public school works for your child and your family, then that is wonderful. But if it doesn't, isn't it nice to know that there is an entire community of people willing to welcome you into the world of home education?
Rena Corey, Reston


Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail

By Washington Post Editors  | March 19, 2009; 9:18 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  
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I am writing in response to Jay Matthew’s insistence that introducing high stakes testing in Kindergarten “appears to have produced significant gains in reading and math achievement for students in this age group…….” (The Pressure is On, and the Kids Suffer in Kindergarten, Extra Credit, March 19).
As a 33 veteran of an urban school district, I feel it is necessary to point out that translated into real world practice, high stakes testing (as promoted in NCLB and other proponents of a “business model” of education) has completely taken over the instructional methods used in public school classrooms. In order to pass a measurable quantitative test, facts must be given precedence over reflection, analysis, and creativity precisely because they are easier to measure. Teachers and schools have become so test-driven that even though we know what type of teaching methods foster these skills, we have no time to strengthen these practices, because we are often racing through a state curriculum guide that dictates the content that will be on THE TEST. In the future, our pay may even depend on these types of incomplete measures.
Many of today's students are often very uninterested in wanting to know what's NOT on the test. They have become so conditioned to having to know only "a,b,c, or d", that they are no longer proactive learners. Teachers who have been in this business a while know what can go wrong with this notion of using high stakes tests to determine "success". VA has had the SOL tests since 1998 and so we have seen the long term of effects of a "good idea" that only focuses only on part of the story in a child's overall education.
Tests have always existed and are valid and necessary, but many of our children are not able to read, write or compute because we need more than just high stakes testing. We also need time. Time to collaborate with other teachers who are role models and can share their successful real-world practices, time to develop instruction that encourages and demands more than just "a.b,c, or d" and helps strengthen curiosity, reflection and flexibility and of course, the time to develop relationships with our students, communities, parents or guardians. Parents set the stage and teachers simply help direct the show.
Of course we want to be accountable, but we cannot allow convenience (i.e., easy to measure content) to dictate all that transpires in practice.

Patricia J. Lewis

Posted by: pjlsan | March 19, 2009 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I think the story about kindergarten should cause every parent to think carefully about whether their child is ready to go.

Some children are ready for reading, sentences and "how come" answers at that age. Others are not. It is not a reflection of your parenting or how intelligent your child is or will be.

Don't send your child to kindergarten just because they're old enough!

Think back over your child's development. Do they hit milestones before or after their peers? Were they quick to potty train? Can they go without a nap? Are they willing to sit still?

They may still have problems, but they'll be a little more mature and resilient for an extra year.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 19, 2009 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Since when did we start giving kindergarten kids exams?

Sometime between the present and when I was in kindergarten, the United States became India. What a sad state of affairs.

As a high-pressure, McLean-based father, could somebody please tell me where I can send my kids to school where they let the kids be kids? Thanks, in advance.

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | March 19, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

I am not aware that any students I know in Kindergarten in DCPS, MCPS and Fairfax County have done any such testing in any way as described above. All my sons friends have some kind of rest time. I want to suggest that what is described above is NOT NORMAL TO THE DC AREA.

Posted by: bbcrock | March 19, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you felt the changes in kindergarten are good and had no research showing that there is harm, a new report contradicts that view; ��"Time for play in most kindergartens has dwindled to the vanishing point, replaced by lengthy lessons and standardized testing, according to results of three new studies released today by the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood. Children in all-day kindergartens were found to spend four to six times as much time being instructed, tested, or prepared for tests (about two to three hours per day) as in free play or “choice time” (30 minutes or less). Classic play materials like blocks, sand and water tables, and props for dramatic play have largely disappeared.

The findings are documented in Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. The report states that these practices, “which are not well grounded in research, violate long-established principles of child development and good teaching.”
and here is the full report link:

Posted by: researcher2 | March 20, 2009 5:57 AM | Report abuse

I am the co-author of "Crisis in the Kindergarten," the report that researcher2, above, described on March 20. Jay Mathews's faith in standardized testing defies both logic and science. The "significant gains" he attributes to academics-heavy kindergartens are illusions: short-lived bumps in kids' scores on tests that have almost no meaning at the K-2 level. You have to look further down the road to see the real effects of these deeply misguided policies.

Just one example: most of the play-based kindergartens in Germany were changed into centers for cognitive achievement during a wave of educational “reform” in the 1970s. But research comparing 50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers found that by age ten the children who had been allowed to play were more advanced in reading and mathematics, were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school, and excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and “industry.” As a result of this study Germany made all its kindergartens play-based again.

Standardized tests are useless for measuring virtually everything that is important in early childhood education. So why is the Washington Post's education reporting so uniformly pro-testing? Could it have something to do with the fact that the Post owns Kaplan, Inc., one of the largest educational testing corporations in the country? How about a little full disclosure, Mr. Mathews?

Edward Miller
New York City

Posted by: EdInNewYork | March 22, 2009 10:30 PM | Report abuse

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