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The New First Grade: Kindergarten
17 Dec 2013
by Jill Walston

By Jill Walston and Kristin Flanagan

Remember kindergarten? Remember the sand table where you poured and measured?  The dress-up corner where you pretended to be a “community helper?” The science center where you explored with magnets and sorted pine cones? These kindergarten staples are disappearing. Art and music are fading too. In many ways, kindergarten is becoming the new first grade. According to an AIR analysis of data from U.S. Department of Education’s early childhood longitudinal studies, America’s public school kindergarten has become dramatically more academic.

  • In 1998-99, only 29 percent of kindergartners’ teachers said that children should learn to read in kindergarten. In 2010-11, this rose to 78 percent.
  • In 1998-99, 53 percent of kindergartners were in full-day kindergarten programs, in 2010-11, 81 percent.
  • Even with those extra hours, time for art and music has dwindled. The percentage of kindergartners who have music three or more times a week? Down from 51 to 27 percent. Or art? Down from 54 to 25 percent.
  • The time children spend in whole-group instruction (seated, all paying attention to the teacher at the same time) is up. In 1998-99, 14 percent of kindergartners were in whole group instruction for three hours or more a day. By 2010-11, 30 percent were.
  • The presence of some common kindergarten classroom areas has also declined. Sand and water tables (51 to 27 percent), dramatic play areas (88 to 61 percent), science areas with objects to manipulate (66 to 43 percent).

  What are kindergartners learning? They are learning much more advanced skills than kindergartners were learning 12 years earlier.

  • In 1998-99, 48 percent of kindergartners’ teachers considered ‘reading fluently’ too much to expect of kindergarteners. In 2010-11, only 10 percent of teachers did. In 2010-11, 90 percent of kindergartners were being taught to read fluently and 41 percent worked on this skill every day.
  • In 2010-11, 97 percent of kindergartners were in classes where “composing and writing complete sentences” was considered a kindergarten skill. Fifty-three percent were working on this every day. Ninety-nine percent of 2010-11 kindergartners were in classes where “using capitalization and punctuation” was considered a kindergarten skill and two-thirds worked on both daily.

  Also on the rise are expectations about the skills children need to know to be kindergarten-ready on the first day of school. Many kindergarten teachers consider it “very important” or “essential” that children entering kindergarten already know how to use pencils and paintbrushes (68 percent), know most of the letters of the alphabet (47 percent), and can count to 20 (35 percent). Given these high expectations, the value kindergarten teachers place on preschool is hardly surprising. Eighty-four percent of 2010-11 kindergartners’ teachers agree or strongly agree that “attending preschool is very important for success in kindergarten.” Traditionally, kindergarten was the transition year before formal schooling. If kindergarten is the “new first grade,” is preschool the new “kindergarten?” The conversation about access to high-quality preschool for all children is an important one. For children who do not attend high-quality preschool programs, what chance at success will they have in today’s kindergarten? This post was written by Jill Walston and Kristin Flanagan, principal researchers with the American Institutes for Research. 



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The teachers who demand that five year olds write complete sentences should be ashamed of themselves. They are either incompetent or liars; either way, they are doing a great disservice to children.

When I started teaching ten years ago I taught first grade. Now I teach kindergarten special Ed. But I am teaching the exact same lessons, just to younger students. In only ten years I have seen a shift in our expectations of what we believe five years should be able to do. But the nature of being a five year old hasn't changed.

As a developmental psychologist, I have to say that Piaget and Vygotsky must be rolling in their graves! Anyone who has studied cognitive development knows that 5-year-olds don't think or learn the same way as 8-year-olds do. Young children need to interact with the world, engage in imaginary play, and participate in fun, interesting activities with peers and teachers. Sitting still in desks is not doing these children any favors. I'm sure the teachers and parents pushing this are well-meaning, but it's not helping children learn!

This post makes me angry. So much of what is mentioned in this post is so wrong. Many of the skills mentioned are developmental skills and just because it is being taught in Kindergarten doesn't mean it's what's best for children. Can you imagine telling a child that they are not ready for grade one because they have not met a certain height requirement? Like growing taller, learning how to read is a developmental skill. Yes we can feed our children and ensure they get a good nights sleep, but when, and only when their body is ready to grow taller will it grow taller. Learning to read, in many ways, works the same way. We can provide excellent instruction, time to explore and play with books, but ultimately it is still a developmental skill. To no surprise you will hear many parents and teachers say that their children learned how to read over night. Post like this make me appreciate being a teacher in British Columbia, Canada more and more where the actual child is what is important in the education system, and not the content others feel should be forced on them at such a young age. Child development was a key component of my teacher training, 20+ years ago, not sure why it's being thrown out in the US.

"For children who do not attend high-quality preschool programs, what chance at success will they have in today’s kindergarten?" Please, do not imply that we need to create more quality preschools to prepare young children for inappropriate kindergartens! We need high quality preschools so that children have the opportunity to discover who they are and how they fit into the world through play and interactions with other children and kind adults. They need to use their senses and experiment with rich materials in a safe environment. Then we need to insist that kindergarten be a continuation of preschool--more play, more inquiry with caring teachers along side them as they "research" together. Then we would see real learning. In fact, it should continue all through their school life.

I feel like we are wiping away the childhood of children. It feels like we are squeezing it out like an anaconda kills it's prey. I'm disgusted by it all.

And in other news, rain is wet. Small children have not changed so much that their brains are wired differently than they were 50 years ago, or even 15; their developmental needs and intellectual capacities are no different - so why are the powers that be insisting that just "raising the bar" will make them smarter? Kids are showing signs of stress - clinical stress, as in needing therapy, not just normal childhood stuff any more - younger and younger. :'( I fear for our youngest students....

It's not the teachers who force this but lawmakers and curriculum directors. Teachers have little control over what we teach, when and for how long. Recess is not even in our controll. I think there is too much taught in one grade. It would be better to slow down on the content and allow the kids to explore more and be kids.

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