Studies have shown young children who are behind in learning – as defined by tests such as the ITBS Reading Comprehension – seldom blossom into late blooming top readers. If they are poor readers early on, they tend, on average, to remain so.
Photo: Molly Pratt
Photo: Molly Pratt

If kindergarten is a ‘child’s garden,’ how does learning bloom?

In an earlier blog that drew a lot of response, teachers decried the academic pressures now occurring in kindergarten, saying we are asking young children to learn skills they are developmentally unsuited to do.

In nearly 200 comments on AJC Get Schooled Facebook page, teachers and parents recoiled at the intensifying focus on reading and math and structured lessons at the expense of free play and creative activities.

Earlier this week, an elementary teacher reached out to me to share her contrary view, one that she feared would be shouted down on AJC Get Schooled Facebook. 

The reason, she said, for an increasing academic focus in kindergarten is that students are arriving at first grade far behind, and that gap is difficult to surmount. 

Studies have shown young children who are behind in learning – as defined by tests such as the ITBS Reading Comprehension – seldom blossom into late blooming top readers. If they are poor readers early on, they tend, on average, to remain so.

As the teacher explained:

We’re in a race to give these children the skills to succeed. When they come to us already so far behind in first grade, it’s  impossible for some to ever catch up. We try. We really try. But we need more help from the parents, the pre-Ks and the kindergartens.

(Some teachers commented that children who learn to read before kindergarten are not really able to handle such a complex skill. But an Early Childhood Literacy study found that students who are read to and who learn basic reading skills before kindergarten have a more positive association with books and make substantial academic gains once they develop full literacy.)

The teacher’s overall point: Young children are capable of more than historically has been asked of them in U.S. kindergartens, which she believes have been resistant to imposing more ambitious academic standards.

She spent five weeks in China on an education exchange, and, while she abhorred classrooms of 50 students, she was dazzled by the mathematical fluency of even young children. “We were not in a rich region of China. These were children whose parents were laborers, not bankers.”

But is the answer more drilling, testing and worksheets in kindergarten?

Georgia education professor Bryan P. Sorohan made this point in an email to me: 

The statistics reported on socioeconomic differences in school readiness are indisputable, and factor into much of the discussion on school issues. Likewise, I have no reason to doubt the lifetime effects reported for disparities in school readiness: students who are not ready to read when they start school will undoubtedly experience lifelong disparities in educational and other outcomes. 

The causes for these effects are not simple. Students from poorer families may not be ready to read by age five for a variety of reasons: obstacles to parental involvement related to economic needs, nutritional deficiencies, lack of exposure to information-rich and educative resources in the home and elsewhere (also due to family economic needs) and many others. 

Research shows that reading to children is one simple factor that greatly increases reading readiness, for example, but parents who are working multiple jobs just to keep the lights on and food on the table are not going to have the same time to read to their children as wealthier parents. Providing access to high-quality preschool is one way to help remedy this problem, but poor parents also do not have the ability to pay for that kind of educational preparation.

The problem, said Sorohan, is that children lagging in needed skills aren’t being helped by our current solution of turning kindergarten into first grade.

The real problems arise in the way school bureaucracies respond to these realities. Several other facts have to be taken into consideration: first, a student who is not developmentally ready to start reading is not going to be magically catapulted into readiness through a curriculum that is not appropriate for their current developmental level. Nature and human development cannot be altered by just expecting children to learn something we want them to learn before they are ready. 

The example of Finnish Schools is instructive: they emphasize play and pre-literate reading-related activities  , and their literacy rate is one we can only envy. (As an aside, I have actually heard people attribute the educational achievements of the Finns to their relatively homogeneous society, whereas it is the U.S. system that attempts to force a very diverse society into a one-size-fits-all educational system). US bureaucracies, however, respond by essentially denying the socioeconomic factors in school readiness and the realities of human cognitive development. 

Part of the reason may be that, for some reason, the US continues to put non-educators in leadership positions in our educational establishment. Expecting a business or military professional, regardless of their success in their chosen fields, to understand educational realities has pretty much proven to be a fool's errand. Part of the problem also lies in the high-stakes, punitive style of educational accountability we practice here: too many educational leaders understand that their jobs depend on this year's test scores, not long-term results, and react by retreating into familiar but ultimately detrimental solutions based on approaches they think are "rigorous." 

The irony is that the very meaning of the term "kindergarten" is "child's garden," reflecting the origins of the concept as a place where children played, explored, and developed according to natural, human processes. The overwrought and reactionary type of educational "reform" that US schools have been stampeded into for the past three decades has led educational bureaucracies to essentially deny the realities of how children learn and develop. Thankfully, teachers such as those at Boston's Brookline schools have finally decided to put their feet down against the kind of abusive bureaucratic nonsense we've been fed about our schools.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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