Play_Time_cajThose in the know have been saying it since the dawn of the enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and high stakes testing: Kindergarten has been “reformed,” replacing play and socialization skills with learning to read–and much the shame. Why, I even observed a teacher attempting to teach her little students commas in a series–this when they couldn’t even write their names, let alone sit still.

Even more unsettling was observing another kindergarten teacher attempting to explain/teach quotation marks around dialogue. As you can well imagine, that didn’t go well, either.

Meanwhile, it’s official that kindergarten has been transformed of late. Researchers at the University of Virginia recently reported on their comparisons of kindergarten and first grade classrooms from 1998 to 2010: “Kindergarten the New First Grade? The Changing Nature of Kindergarten in the Age of Accountability.”

Their findings were eye-opening.

As co-author Daphna Bassok said, “We were fairly floored by how consistent the results were across everything in the data. We saw very large changes, and the magnitude was large, too, in how teachers spend their time and how the classroom is structured and what kids are experiencing.”

Indeed, they found that “teachers had higher expectations for their kindergartners than their predecessors, with classrooms more akin to first grade.” Here’s why:

  • There was a 33% increase in the number of teachers who believe students should know the alphabet and how to use a pencil before entering kindergarten.
  • Just 31% of the teachers in 1998 believed kindergartners should learn to read in kindergarten; 80% of teachers said so in 2010.

The researchers also found that between 1998 and 2010:

  • Music instruction decreased by 18%
  • Daily art instruction decreased by 16%
  • The number of teachers who spent at least one hour a day on child-selected activities decreased by 14%
  • The likelihood that classrooms had discovery or play areas, such as a sand table, science or art area, fell by more than 20%.

And it’s safe to assume that these figures have risen even more since, as Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan some time ago doubled-down on No Child Left Behind, adding Common Core Standards into the mix of standardized testing and evaluating teachers on the basis of student performance.

It’s all about their insistence that children need a head start in order to handle the heavy lifting to come as they move through the grades. Their goal: All kids be “college and career ready,” starting at the very earliest ages. Why, now there’s even a Kindergarten Readiness app, put out by the Family Education Network and boasting to “help prepare your preschooler for kindergarten.”

In the Teachers College Record article, “Early Childhood Pushes Up: The Incredible Ridiculousness of the Readiness Claim,” Jeanne Maria Iorio and Clifton Tanabe, put it this way: “Kindergarten readiness is plagued with a list of academic skills like identifying rhyming words and the alphabet. Companies like LeapFrog offer lists of readiness skills to educate the public as as well as products to achieve this readiness…”

There’s more, of course. Here’s a list of several mid-year “kindergarten expectations” in the language arts from Heinemann Publishers:

  • Read words on sight (examples: word wall words, classmate’s names, family names, labels and signs).
  • Use the beginning letter or other known letters in words to read (cue) some words (partial phonemic awareness).
  • Read level B to C emergent texts with purpose, fluency, and understanding. (Show samples of texts being read independently after practice. Include child-selected samples from the child’s book bag and samples from guided reading.)

Hence the call for universal preschool from countless politicians from Obama on down to Philly’s newest mayor, Jim Kenny, and New York City’s Bill De Blasio. Then there’s Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, who says, “This makes the case for how kids cannot be expected to be ready for kindergarten and first grade without an early education experience, especially low-income and minority students. They need to be more prepared.”

However, says renowned educator and author Alfie Kohn, “Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered–other than declaring it should be ‘high quality.’ And that phrase is often interpreted to mean ‘high intensity’: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, get the worst of this…”

Adds The Washington Post‘s education reporter Valerie Strauss, “For some kids, learning to read in kindergarten is just fine. For many others, it isn’t. They just aren’t ready. In years gone by, kids were given time to develop and learn to read in the early grades without being seen as failures. Even kids who took time learning to read were able to excel. Today, kids aren’t given time and space to learn at their own speed.”

Welcome to the oft-touted new normal…