Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Kindergarten: who started the crazy?

Recently I have been following a conversation in my neighborhood list serve that has occupied a good bit of my available thinking power.

The conversation centers around an article written by the Post about kindergarten standards.
The city has adopted the Common Core standards, which list some advanced skill sets required of kindergarten students.


One of the questions cited in the article is: "Miguel has two shelves. Miguel has six books . . . How many different ways can Miguel put books on the two shelves? Show and tell how you know."

The parents in my neighborhood have pointed out that there are several possibilities. The answer considered correct is 5. But as one parent pointed out, the question does not indicate that both shelves must be used, so 7 could be correct. Another parent chimed in with over 5K- something about fractorials.

At the end of the article a DOE spokesperson says

"These are the types of activities and exercises that students need to work on to acquire the skills they need to be ready for middle school, high school, college and careers.”

They want to make the argument that these standards for kindergarten will determine my son's career options? He is three right now. What if he isn't ready for kindergarten? He has a December birthday- it is possible he might need more time, and that may not even be an available option (I am going to come back to this in a bit).

It has been a long time since I took childhood development, but I question that the kindergarten students can do much more than memorize without true comprehension. Turns out my doubt is not unfounded. Here is an excerpt from a study I found. The bottom line is - focusing rigorously on academics in kindergarten is an idea that has crazy written all over it

Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute, says despite ramped-up expectations, including overtly academic work in kindergarten, study results reveal remarkable stability around ages at which most children reach cognitive milestones such as being able to count four pennies or draw a circle. For the study, 92 examiners conducted 40-minute one-on-one assessments with 1,287 children ages 3–6 at 56 public and private schools in 23 states.

“People think children are smarter and they are able to do these things earlier than they used to be able to—and they can’t,” says Guddemi. While all children in the study were asked to complete 19 tasks, results echoed previous Gesell findings showing, for example, that a square is in the 4 1/2-year-old repertoire, but a child cannot draw a triangle until 5 1/2. These developmental milestones, Guddemi says, relate directly to what can be expected of children in kindergarten.

Learning vs. Training
For teachers, the study provides some concrete guidance for understanding how child development meshes with student learning. For example, says Guddemi, children must be able to see and understand the oblique line in a triangle to recognize some letters in the alphabet. Until children can draw a triangle they cannot perceive angled lines in, say, the letter “K,” nor can they write it, or recognize it when printed in different fonts, she says.

Similarly, Gesell’s study results show 4-year-olds can count four pennies, making a one-to-one correspondence. But only half at age 4 1/2 respond “four” when asked how many they have all together. This skill, called “conserving” because they must hold the number in their heads, is needed to do addition. By 5 1/2, children can conserve 13 pennies and can count 20 pennies. But they cannot conserve 20 pennies until age 6. If they cannot conserve, says Guddemi, a child memorizes 2 + 3 = 5, but doesn’t realize that 3 + 2 = 5.

What’s tricky, says Guddemi, is that children can be trained to perform tasks (called “splinter skills”), such as writing names or counting. But just because “April” can pen her name doesn’t mean she can perceive letters with oblique angles. “You can train them, but the knowledge and understanding—the true learning—has not happened,” she says. “Our country has this hang up that if the child can perform, that they know.”

Guddemi worries that many kindergarteners are facing work inappropriate to their developmental abilities. For example, Gesell study results, compiled by the non-profit Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) in Denver, CO, show that children at age 4 1/2 know and recognize 12 letters (no letter is more popular than another). For a child on the younger side in kindergarten, Guddemi says, the mismatch is jarring: “Day One they are going to be hit with the [entire] alphabet.” Drilling students on the alphabet is a much different strategy for increasing literacy skills than exposing students to vocabulary-rich conversations, she says. (See “Small Kids, Big Words ,” Harvard Education Letter, May/June 2008.)

The perception that “more input is always better,” may be misguided, agrees David Daniel, psychology professor at James Madison University and managing editor of the journal Mind, Brain, and Education. “The four-year-old has a four-year-old brain and a six-year-old has a six-year-old brain. There are certain things connecting in a six-year-old brain that are still being worked on in the four-year-old brain,” he says. Serious academics in kindergarten? “They can be teaching it,” says Daniel, “but the question is: Is the child learning it?”

This is not the only example of a study that has found increasing the requirements for kindergarten to be ineffectual. I am a regular reader of Free Range Kids which posted a blurb about the benefits of rough housing and free play:

Long-term studies by Dr. Rebecca Marcon tracked kids in academic preschools versus play-based preschools. The kids in the academic programs did worse later in elementary school – both their grades and behavior.
Current brain research shows that roughhousing games increase brain power. All that goofing off and horsing around? It actually strengthens the frontal lobe – an area of the brain vital for impulse control, memory and later academic success. In fact, researchers credit rough play to better learning, flexibility, problem-solving, impulse control, memory, executive function, social and emotional skills, and creativity
...preparation for school looks nothing like school itself. Roughhousing can be just as important as reading to kids.

Locally there is another bit of academic cluelessness on the part of the powers in charge. New York City is enacting rules that will make it harder to delay your child if he or she is not ready for Kindergarten. So, if Ranger is not ready to start with his year group, the process of getting a waiver to get him delayed entry seems to be quite challenging with slim chance of success.

Who started this craziness?

While looking around for studies on this subject I ran across one example where parents are the ones getting anxious. Education is success and the chance to be one step ahead is one many parents will jump at.

Parents want their children to succeed. No surprise there. In Manhattan there often are interviews and application packets that resemble college entrance applications FOR PRESCHOOL. If you have seen Nursery University, the depiction of the process is unfortunately accurate. And if your child gets in- the price tag is hefty. Parents put themselves through this because space in good schools is limited and space in awesome schools is somewhere between limited and keep dreaming. And who doesn't want their child in the best possible program? We decided to enroll Ranger in a school (the Y) that is not the closest to us- in the morning the commute takes around 35 sometimes as much as 45 minutes. On the way home it is more like 20 minutes. And oh, by the way, I hate driving. But the program has been voted the best in the Queens county so I put aside my dislike for driving and he gets an awesome pre-pre-kindergarten education.

But would I push Ranger in to a situation he wasn't ready for? Not as long as I have a choice in the matter.

The federal government and the standardization tests educators are held to put pressure on every level of schooling and emphasizes that the key to success is education. I agree education leads to more opportunities for success. But the domino effect back into kindergarten is disheartening. I want my sons to enjoy school as much as possible. Making them anxious about learning concepts they are not necessarily biologically ready to learn in the first year of formal schooling isn't going to encourage them to be life long learners.

I haven't found any articles where educators are thrilled about the increased rigor for kindergarteners. I have seen a few who relate the increased standards to increased literacy. This could be true for more reasons than increasing standards. For instance, most areas have pre-kindergarten classes readily available. Some areas have mandatory pre-kindergarten.

Is there another way? Some people might homeschool, but that's not a route I would take despite holding an education degree. Older students might have alternative options allowing them to progress at their own pace (which is sometimes faster than in a regular class where the teacher is trying to teach a subject to the least advanced learner). One blogger I follow has a son who is part time homeschooled and part time in an alternative program- a solution to her son's needs. Maybe we should be thinking outside of the test bubbles.

I don't know what the answer is, but in the last week when I have been Googling this topic, I have come across many articles about why it's bad, and have found almost no mention on why it is good to make kindergarten the new first grade.

Are we really setting up our children for success?

Here is an article that does a decent job of presenting both the "pro" and the "con" side of making kindergarten the new first grade.

More Work, Less Play in Kindergarten By Daniel de Vise May 23, 2007

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