Kindergarten less playful as pressure to achieve grows

By Karen Brandon

Tribune national correspondent

October 20, 2002

SAN DIEGO -- Blocks, dolls and the toy kitchen were banned from Mary Lauren Tenney's kindergarten classroom last year in Knoxville, Tenn. But Tenney kept the blocks in defiance, arguing that, "For years, we told parents that children learn through play."

The children in Patti Lochner's kindergarten classroom in Ft. Myers, Fla., took standardized achievement tests last month, and some cried or put their heads on their desks in exhaustion.

More pupils in Betsy Chamberlain's kindergarten classroom in San Diego cry, wet their pants and act out, behaviors she believes stem from pressure to achieve.

"They see other kids [reading] and they know they should be doing it, and they know they can't--not because they don't want to, but because they're not ready," she said.

Kindergarten teachers nationwide say the test-driven education reform at state and federal levels is leading to changes in kindergarten that set unrealistically high achievement goals. Among them: expecting all children to learn to read, which sets up more pupils for failure in the year that serves as their introduction to formal schooling.

Four weeks into the school year, for instance, Chamberlain sent letters home to parents of her kindergarten pupils, telling them that their children should write their names legibly, distinguish each letter's name and sounds, and read some words such as "the," "said" and "you." Otherwise, she warned, they would not meet the San Diego public school district's new and higher achievement standard, a milestone only one child in her class achieved two years ago.

The instruction techniques that early childhood education experts say are ideal for learning frequently are derided as "just play" by administrators and policymakers pushing what they consider to be more academically oriented curricula, according to some teachers.

Recent scientific research emphasizing young children's extraordinary capacity to learn and the importance of early learning experiences has played a role in reinventing kindergarten from the experience many parents recall largely as two hours of play, naps and snacks. And parents--aware that children are capable of more, and that the world seems more demanding and competitive--also want more for their children.

"There's quite a struggle going on nationally now in kindergarten programs over the kinds of standards that are being required," said Leslie Williams, professor of early childhood education at Teachers College at Columbia University. "I think there's a kind of concern in the public that somehow children aren't doing real work unless there's a very traditional kind of work going on in the classroom with worksheets."

Reading goals worry some

Many school districts have adopted policies, either formal or unwritten, that kindergartners should be reading by school year's end, a goal early childhood experts said is within the grasp of some, but not all, children. The goal needlessly sets up more children for failure, experts said, because no research indicates that reading earlier leads to higher academic achievement in later years.

"Most children at the age of 5 are not developmentally ready to be decoding in the manner one needs to be reading," said Dominic Gullo, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "If they can't do it, they're perceived as having a problem in learning. That sets up an expectation about the child that follows. They have a self-perception of having difficulty too. They start not liking school."

The emphasis on early reading will be particularly detrimental to boys, who generally are slower to begin reading than girls, said Dick Clifford, co-director of the National Center for Early Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina. And, he said, kindergarten's increasingly academic orientation is beginning to lead more parents to consider "red-shirting" their children, waiting a year to send their children to kindergarten.

Because policies are made by school districts and implemented at individual schools, practices in Illinois and throughout the nation vary widely. Still, there is a clear mandate for children to do more in their first year of school. In the Chicago Public Schools, for instance, retention of kindergartners quadrupled from 1992 to 2001.

One Chicago public school kindergarten teacher recently quit her job in part because of what she considered unrealistic demands of administrators, who expected kindergartners to sit all day at desks, go without recess and learn to read by year's end. The centers the teacher envisioned creating for science, art and dramatic play were prohibited.

"Nothing in that classroom was developmentally appropriate," said the teacher, who asked that neither her name nor the school's name be used. "The principal and vice principal would tell me that these kids did not need what was developmentally appropriate--what they needed was to sit down and just do work."

Though Clifford agrees with the U.S. Department of Education's basic philosophy of putting more emphasis on the importance of literacy and assessing students' progress, he is dismayed by school districts' responses. The exclusion of play to make more time for reading drills "is not a positive way to go about getting children to read," Clifford said.

Kindergarten slowly has expanded from traditional half-day programs to full-day classes now attended by 55 percent of the nation's kindergartners. Advocates of the longer day want to give children opportunities for "the rich, interactive, socio-dramatic play that helps them in all aspects of learning," said Doris Fromberg, who has written books on early childhood education.

"That's been marginalized," said Fromberg, an education professor at Hofstra University and president of the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators Foundation. "Instead of broadening the curriculum, it's narrowing it to very specific skills that are isolated and really do not conform to the way young children learn."

Sneaking in art, music

Dramatic play, often dismissed as "enrichment" in a back-to-basics world, teaches literacy skills, as well as math and science to young children in ways that book learning alone does not, Fromberg said.

At one exemplary classroom she visited, a kindergarten exercise was inspired by students' fascination with their teacher's newly permed hair. The children created a beauty parlor, wrote signs offering "permz for $1.99" and created appointment books, price lists and receipts.

"That's building their skills," she said, "and it's so powerful."

Fromberg, whose work takes her to dozens of kindergarten classrooms every year, sees fewer blocks and play centers--exactly the reverse, she said, of what she would have seen a decade ago. And in recent years, she has begun to hear from former students--new teachers who say they are under pressure to abandon the practices they were trained to use in order to consider ideal instructional methods for young children.

In this environment, kindergarten teachers across the nation confess to guerrilla tactics--secretly keeping stacks of blocks, sneaking in books children love that fall outside strictly scripted reading regimes, and adding music and art when the principal is not looking.

Administrators who have implemented more academic curricula rigorously defend raising expectations, and say young children have risen to the challenge and benefited from it.

Maxine Matlen, principal of Fair Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood, Calif., is proud of the surge in the standardized test scores of the school's 1st graders--a result that, she believes, is due in part to the rigorous groundwork laid the year before.

"It's a very demanding program in kindergarten," she said. "A goal for them is to be reading by the end of kindergarten." The students, she added, are proving they are capable of more.

Parents, too, want their children to live up to their potential, and many feel pressure to prepare their young children for an increasingly competitive world.

Like many parents, Kevin Semlow of Bloomington, Ill., believes his daughters' kindergarten experiences were far more beneficial than his.

Semlow recalls the half-day program he attended as being dominated by working on crafts, learning letters and taking naps. His younger daughter, now 9, attended a full-day kindergarten, where she learned to read and had 15 to 20 minutes of homework each night.

"It laid the foundation," Semlow said, for academic achievements and discipline.

And he said he didn't believe the experience had pushed his daughter too hard.

"There's this philosophy out there that kids should play all the time," he said, "but you go back a hundred years ago, and kids would go to school and do their chores when they came home."

Still, many kindergarten teachers fear the balance in many classrooms has tipped so far that the pupils will burn out.

As one teacher put it, "I wonder not whether they'll be able to read a book, but whether they will want to."

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune


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