Since the pandemic, there’s much talk about rethinking education and this includes the early years of schooling. Most parents just want their schools reopened safely and schedules back to normal, but corporate reformers want to see even more changes made to schools than seen with No Child Left Behind (NCLB)!
The October edition of KAPPAN, the professional journal for educators, is titled: Rethinking the Early Years. The picture is a child climbing on books and implies the need for change in how children learn.
The best change would be to make kindergarten kindergarten again, ensuring that all children have access to safe and lovely classrooms, and nurturing, well-prepared early childhood teachers who encourage truly age-appropriate activities!
Instead, one is left with the feeling that academic expectations will rise further. Schooling will become increasingly difficult for young children in the name of future progress.
What’s missing in the journal is any reflection about the problems with how kindergarten changed years ago with NCLB, continued with Race to the Top and now the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the pressure placed on children.
Remember the 2016 paper by Bassok, Latham, and Rorem, Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?
Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play. This paper compares public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010 using two large, nationally representative data sets. We show substantial changes in each of the five dimensions considered: kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, time spent on academic and nonacademic content, classroom organization, pedagogical approach, and use of standardized assessments. Kindergarten teachers in the later period held far higher academic expectations for children both prior to kindergarten entry and during the kindergarten year. They devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.
Who’s considering the stress caused in kindergarten, so much stress that Web MD includes this class with other age groups when discussing anxiety?
There’s much equity talk, but a refusal to connect the dots with the incidents that involve kindergartners and young children arrested for acting out. Who’s talking about the stress, the trauma children face with all the demands? Who’s looking at how so much pressure could lead to the school-to-prison pipeline?
In 2017, the ACLU reported, Spokane Public Schools suspended 110 kindergarten and first graders during the first 35 days of school this year, more than double the rate of suspension and expulsion for high school students in the district. To put it another way, the district suspends more 5- and 6-year-olds from school than it does 14-18-year-olds combined. In fact, Washington schools suspended or expelled over 6000 students in kindergarten through third grade in the 2015-2016 school year.
Instead of factoring in kindergarten stress, the experts are revisiting the well-known and universally accepted stages of growth by Jean Piaget (p.21). One gets the feeling Piagetian beliefs are about to be cast aside as irrelevant and replaced by a new framework of early learning where anything goes.
This obsession with making children better learners includes some research that might make children more comfortable with schooling. Still, it’s a slippery slope to higher expectations that could leave a large number of young students in the lurch.
Many want an even more rigorous curriculum for young children at a time when parents and policymakers complain about test scores showing children floundering when it comes to reading and math. But no one considers that children might be shutting down due to the pressure they face starting school.
Let’s remember what kindergarten used to be, a happy entryway to school. Children attended half a day. They played, painted pictures, dressed up, pretended to cook using play kitchens, took naps on their little rugs, learned how to take turns, and played some more. They listened to stories, proudly told their own stories, described something unique about themselves during show-and-tell, mastered the ABCs, counted to 10, printed their names, and tied their shoes. They had plenty of recess and got excited over simple chores like watering the plants or passing out snacks. They had art and music and performed in plays that brought families together to generate pride and joy in their children and the public school.
Then, NCLB changed kindergarten in 2002. The Chicago Tribune described this rethinking well, which I’ve broken down.
- In some schools, kindergarten is growing more and more academically focused–particularly on early reading.
- The pressure to perform academically is trickling down from above, many experts say, because of new state and federal academic standards.
- . . . in one Florida classroom some children “cried or put their heads on their desks in exhaustion” after standardized achievement tests.
- One Chicago public school kindergarten teacher quit in part because of what she considered unrealistic demands of administrators who expected kindergartners to sit all day at desks, go without recess and learn to read by year’s end. The teacher wanted to create centers for science, art and dramatic play but was forbidden.
- In some places, kindergarten, once a gentle bridge to real school where play and learning easily intermingled, is becoming an academic pressure-cooker for kids, complete with half an hour of homework every night.
- Some parents are alarmed enough that they’re “redshirting” their children, holding them back from kindergarten for a year so they will be more mature.
So how will they rethink early childhood again? Instead of kindergarten being the new first grade will it become the new third or fourth grade, with more standards piled onto the backs of 5-year-olds?
What happens to the children who are developing normally and can’t meet the standards, or children who have disabilities and need more time? Will they be labeled as failing, sorted into the can’t do kids who get bombarded with online remedial programs?
The harder they make early learning for young children, the more likely parents will seek more humane alternative placements that treat children like children.
It’s time to start caring more about the children and less about driving outcomes or results that don’t make sense.
I am sharing the best standards for children of all time, written by now-retired teacher extraordinaire, Sarah Puglisi.
Here’s a sample. Please go to the link and read all 100 of them. Then bring back kindergarten!
1. All children should know love.
2. All children should know that they have a bed to sleep in tonight, and next week, and for their life.
3. All children should have adequate, even delicious food, and know all about their food.
4. All children should have support within the walls of their homes.
5. All children should have the experience of play.
6. All children should know nature, value nature, interact within nature, and be in families that have some capacity to do the same.
7. All children should know, have, and be able to be friends.
8. All children should have clothes to wear that help keep them warm, and expresses their beauty.
9. All children should feel that their family is accepted, and is of value.
10. All children should learn language, learn to speak by finding their world one that enjoys communication, the more languages that they know the more broadened the understanding.
11. All children should have health and DENTAL care that their families are not fearful about, or simply can’t afford or have, and know illness cannot bankrupt them. They need health care that attends to their well being.
12. All children should be regarded as potentially, and individually, and instantly a part of whatever cosmic beauty, goodness, whatever we wish to call it, that exists and as such is the reason we all live with hope and possibility.
Thompson, J. and Stanković-Ramirez, Z. (2021, September 27). What Early Childhood Educators Know About Developmentally Appropriate Practice. KAPPAN. 302 (N2) p. 20-23.
Sheila Resseger says
Regarding the current esteem or lack thereof for Piaget, here is the answer that Ken Wagner gave during the joint meeting of the RI Board of Education and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education at which his nomination by Governor Gina Raimondo (current Commerce Secretary) as Commissioner of Education was confirmed onJuly 13, 2015. (I was the only person to speak against his confirmation. Even the teachers’ union leaders voted for him.)
Question from a member regarding what strategies he would propose to address the achievement gaps between white students and minority students:
“I think one of the most transformative pieces of addressing achievement gaps is, as I’ve been speaking about, needs to start with high learning expectations for all students, and that’s something that can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. We approach the work occasionally with preconceptions about what students can and can’t do and what certain students can and can’t do. … It’s not a question of what a student can and can’t do. This idea that students are somehow stuck in discrete developmental stages has changed, this idea has changed in the half century since Piaget was writing about developmental psychology. Now the consensus seems to be much more that students can achieve things never thought possible, provided the right supports. So we need to start the achievement gap question with Do we really believe and do we really have high expectations for all students?”
Nancy Bailey says
I remember that comment, Sheila. I’m afraid he is not alone in not simply questioning Piaget but promoting more difficult expectations for young children. Thank you.
Interesting that we’re pushing kids to be reading etc. at an even earlier age for at least 20 years and yet these tests that are supposed to measure their ability are showing it’s not working.
But our kids are struggling more with mental health issues? We don’t get redos on our children’s lives. I will pick play any day to my children being “readers” before they are developmentally able to be so. Our kids need to play to create the future healthy critical leaders our world so desperately needs.
Nancy Bailey says
I’m glad you pointed this out, Stef. I fear many parents have bought into the idea that their children should be reading fluently by kindergarten, leaving out the critical language component that comes with imaginative play. Thank you for this important comment!
I seriously doubt Wagner ever really read Piaget’s research. He is just parroting what his corporate masters want to hear. I am sounding a little hysterical here, but there is no doubt in my mind why Washington state is expelling more young children from school than high school students Can you imagine the pressure it takes to get those curious little creatures to crack? What is wrong with these people!?
Nancy Bailey says
Thanks. I agree. They all parrot each other and don’t care about the ramifications of what they’re doing. Don’t care about the children anyway.
Jacqueline Kolb says
As a kindergarten teacher, my heart aches…
Exactly the reason I retired after 25 years teaching kindergarten! For the majority of five year olds the curriculum borders on child abuse!
Roy Turrentine says
Why must we proceed as though there needs to be a competitive model of education? This is the impetus behind the public promotion of education. Every parent wants to make sure their own child is ready to compete in the social and economic fight for success. So political leaders talk about everything as though this is true. Believing that it is true makes it true in the most damaging self-fulfilling prophecy in our society.
The truth is, many of the children who grow up just slightly behind the curve do pretty well when they grow into their maturity. How often have I been surprised to learn that a student has risen to some unexpected level of success. How often am I surprised when a child seemingly changes personality after my association with them in a class.
The real question is more complex. How many more students never develop in a way positive for society because we force them to see themselves in a comparison situation with others who have maturity advantages. Parents know that. At least half of my daughter’s friends held their children out of school for a year because they realized the demands of kindergarten were unreasonable. Many others, like me, could ill afford to spend another chunk of child care money while the maturity level of their child caught up with a class full of children older than they.
It would be better if we grouped children in terms of academic maturity rather than age. I know this presents problems as puberty and society approaches, but something needs to be done.
I agree with you completely that we are putting way too much pressure on these young minds to develop academic skills often before they have developed the social/emotional skills necessary to be successful in school or the vocabulary necessary to be successful readers. As a toddler, I was diagnosed with a developmental disability and did not interact well with others. My kindergarten teacher was able to help me develop some social and emotion regulation skills through structured play activities with other children, songs, gardening, social skills instruction and shared reading. I was giving the opportunity to teach a kindergarten reading class over the summer and I distinctly recall a little boy kicking and screaming at a little girl who was blocking his access to the monkey bars (she didn’t know she was in his way). He wasn’t a violent or Ill behaved child he simply had never really experienced playing with others and didn’t have the language skills to say “excuse me” or “move please”. I truly believe the pandemic has exacerbated social/emotional skills gaps that will make academic success significantly more difficult for those just beginning the journey and possibly provide lasting negative feedback loops that will further widen gaps in academic performance and discipline instead of decreasing them.
I am an education professor, and yesterday I observed one of my student teachers teach a lesson in kindergarten. This district has several elementary schools built on the same plan several decades ago, and the K rooms are gigantic, with lots of counter space and sinks and a bathroom right there. But all there was in this gigantic room were tables and assigned seats and a carpet area and a computer area and lots of empty space. No dramatic play area, no easels, no blocks, no library… I asked my student teacher why she thought the room was so large, and she had no idea it was built for a different kind of kindergarten. I’m not sure what to do.
Nancy Bailey says
That is very sad and, my guess, rather typical these days for kindergarten. You might ask the supervising teacher why it’s like that. I’m afraid many teachers have bought into these changes.
Thanks for sharing, Carrie. It sounds like a great thing to discuss with student teachers.
Covid has changed the way are able to utilize space in kindergarten rooms.
Nancy Bailey says
I bet that’s tough. I don’t know how kindergarten teachers are managing. My hats off to you. Stay safe. Thanks for commenting.