Hard-working kindergarteners

The kindergarten controversy is not about to go away any time soon, as, more and more, school districts across the country turn the “children’s garden” into a full-day affair, complete with reading, writing, arithmetic, and testing, too. In other words, the new first grade.

Used to be, our youngest students engaged in all manner of play, everything from playing dress-up and building wooden block castles to carving out sand tunnels and singing along as their teacher accompanied them on the piano. And always for just a few hours every day.

That was then. Now, though, thanks in part to former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, play and socialization have taken a back seat to curricular and testing demands. And fitting it all in has resulted in full-day kindergarten classrooms.

A few holdouts remain, however, such as Pennsylvania’s Methacton School District which offers kindergarteners both morning and afternoon sessions. A neighboring district took another tack, though. Its full-day kindergarten curriculum includes teaching commas in a series, using the caret (^) to add detail to writing, and putting quotation marks around dialogue. Really.

And to think that in the good old days it was enough that a child recognized his letters and their sounds before heading off to first grade.

Says psychiatrist, author, Tufts University professor, and early childhood expert David Elkind, “When children are required to do academics too early, they get the message that they are failures. We are sending too many children to school to learn that they are dumb. They are not dumb. They are just not there developmentally.”

Kindergarten teacher Christine Gerzon put it this way: “It’s destructive, even abusive. That’s a pretty strong word, but what do you call it when you take a group of children and you force them to do something they are not developmentally ready to do? What do you call it? It’s abusive.”

As a result some parents are taking matters into their own hands by delaying kindergarten until their kids are six, a trend dubbed “redshirting” after the practice of postponing participation in a sport in order to extend an athlete’s eligibility period.

And it’s not all that uncommon. Based on a 2007 and latest such report, a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) representative estimated that 14% of youngsters were redshirted or had parents who were considering it. Others put that figure as high as 17%.

Meanwhile, some parents are hiring tutors to fill in the blanks or give their kids a competitive edge. A quick Google search reveals numerous outfits offering such services. Among them is Sylvan Learning which promises to “grow your child’s confidence and build a strong learning foundation that will help him succeed in kindergarten.” Some even offer tutoring for the pre-kindergarten set.

So we push. Full-day kindergarten, loaded with reading, writing, arithmetic, and testing is pretty much a given now. And many say for good reason. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, for instance, found that the reading and math skills of full-timers outpaced those of their half-day peers.

But hold on. The study also found that those gains are short-lived, did not last much beyond kindergarten, and pretty much disappeared altogether by third grade. And that would come as no surprise to one Springfield Township School District teacher who said, “We stuff so much information into our kindergarteners’ heads that, by the time they get to my [third grade] classroom, many of them are burned out.”

Meanwhile, now comes word from The Alliance for Childhood, which recently responded to the federal Common Core Standards, so far adopted by 41 states and the District of Columbia. Its conclusion: of the more than 90 kindergarten standards, most are not research-based and “will require long hours of instruction if children are to achieve them.”

A laudable prospect? You decide.