Scholars at the University of Virginia recently published an article entitled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” (full paper available here). By tapping into two large, nationally representative data sets, these researchers were able to compare survey responses provided by public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 to responses to those same questions provided by public school kindergarten teachers in 2010.
Their main findings might not surprise you:
“Kindergarten teachers in 2010 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” (Bassok, Latham, & Rorem, 2016, p.1).
Other key findings reported in this study include:
- The percentage of kindergarten teachers who report that they agree or strongly agree that children should learn to read in kindergarten increased sharply from 31% in 1998 to 80% in 2010.
- Substantial increases in the percentage of teachers who think parents should teach their children the alphabet before they start kindergarten (33% increase) and in the percentage who think children should begin formal reading and math instruction before kindergarten (30% increase).
- Especially pronounced increases in the percentage of teachers who rated academic skills as important for school readiness. For example, the percentage of teachers who reported that children knowing the letters of the alphabet was very important or essential more than doubled from 19% in 1998 to 48% in 2010.
In addition, the study’s findings indicated that “although changes to kindergarten classrooms were pervasive, in many cases they were more pronounced among schools serving high percentages of low-income and non-White children, particularly with respect to teacher expectations and didactic instruction” (Bassok et al., 2016, p. 14).
None of this is particularly surprising. I spent a great deal of time in kindergarten classrooms during the NCLB era, and I had many opportunities to observe and document the instructional shifts similar to those reported in the Bassok et al. study.
But here’s the thing. In 2003-2008—the height of NCLB’s influence and reach—I saw many kindergarten teachers pushing back against the developmentally inappropriate expectations their administrators had for kindergarteners. These teachers were ever ready to substitute, supplement, and enrich their mandated lessons; to cherry-pick the best activities from other units and work them into the lessons scheduled in the district’s Instructional Planning Guide; to shoehorn skills found in the standards into existing curriculum units that had been effective with their students; and to adjust the pacing of lessons to ensure that the more academically advanced students were not getting bored and the less academically advanced students were not being ignored. They managed to establish and maintain protected time for free play daily, they sang songs and read stories, and they worked hard to follow their students’ lead. For these teachers, the students’ needs and the quality of their learning experiences at school were paramount. No one was going to take their house centers away!
By contrast, during this same period, Bassok et al. found that teachers in 2010 were “far less likely to indicate that their classroom included various activity centers, including art areas, dramatic play areas, science areas, or water/ sand tables. These trends are consistent with the possibility that a heightened focus on literacy and math instruction crowded out coverage of other subjects. Taken together with the drops we document in child-selected activities and the increases in teacher-directed instruction as well as the heightened use of textbooks, workbooks, and worksheets, our results may also suggest important shifts in the pedagogical approaches to kindergarten instruction” (Bassok et al., 2016, p.14).
How should we interpret these findings? Bassok et al.’s data suggest that many U.S. kindergarteners might not have opportunities to learn how to make independent choices, negotiate relationships with peers, solve problems, explore actively, have fun, and go home happy and tired at the end of the day. This makes me sad.
Bassok et al.’s data also suggest many kindergarten teachers may have had to reinvent themselves and their teaching practice as their long-established curriculum changed quickly around them.
It’s too late for us to stave off these tremendous changes: they’re here already and appear to be firmly established. Would it be possible to reclaim and reinstate the developmentally appropriate kindergarten curriculum? Or should we just move forward into a brave new world?