"Is the Common Core killing kindergarten?"
Viral letter written by kindergarten teacher resigning from her job cites onslaught of high-stakes testing and curriculum standards as the source of her frustration. Two reports from earlier this year also target the harsh expectations currently placed on kindergarteners, unpacking the assumptions on which the Common Core stands and illustrating how the multiple screenings, diagnostics, and progress assessments throughout the year don't actually do much to equalize the classroom long-term.
LAST SPRING, Susan Sluyter quit teaching kindergarten in the Cambridge Public Schools. She’d spent nearly two decades in the classroom, and her departure wasn’t a happy one. In a resignation letter, Sluyter railed against a “disturbing era of testing and data” that had trickled down from the upper grades and was now assaulting kindergartners with a barrage of new academic demands that “smack of 1st or 2nd grade.”
But Sluyter’s complaints touched a national nerve. Her letter went viral, prompting scores of sympathetic comments by other frustrated teachers and parents. Sluyter’s letter was fresh evidence for groups of early-childhood educators who oppose the kindergarten expectations for math and English Language Arts, or ELA, set by the new Common Core, the academic benchmarks for K-12 that most states have adopted to replace the historic patchwork of standards.
The thrust of the opposition is that many of the standards are too high and not developmentally appropriate for kindergartners. Opponents say teaching some academic skills too early can be counterproductive. They cite research suggesting that reading and math advantages in kindergarten are fleeting. Furthermore, they say, the pressure to meet academic standards will lead to lecture and work sheet style teaching, foster rote memorization, and snuff out the inquiry and play-based instruction that can instill a love of learning.
“The United States is falling behind other countries in the resource that matters most in the new global economy: human capital,” declared a 2008 report from the National Governors Association. Creating a common set of “internationally benchmarked” standards was seen as the best way to close the persistent achievement gaps between students of different races and between rich and poor school districts. The Common Core K-12 standards debuted in June 2010, following a year-long initiative spearheaded by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers.
In two reports published earlier this year, the Boston-based nonprofit Defending the Early Years took aim at the kindergarten standards in ELA (focused on literacy at this age) and math. The first report singled out the expectation that kindergartners should be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”
What does earlier reading in kindergarten predict for reading proficiency and academic success in later grades? Not much, according to the report, which cites study findings that by fourth grade, children who were reading at age 4 were not significantly better at reading than their classmates who’d learned to read at age 7. The report also points out that in Finland and Sweden, kids don’t even start formal schooling until they are 7 years old. Yet, Finnish and Swedish teenagers regularly trounce their American counterparts in international tests of reading, math, and science.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an emeritus professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University,
doesn’t think a few introductory words about making progress will blunt the pressure kindergarten teachers and students feel to meet the standards. “If the writers of the Common Core really meant to soften the reading standard, they could have added the words ‘with support’ as they did with the other kindergarten ELA standards,” she says. “The absence of these words in this standard shows clearly what their intention is.”
Constance Kamii, a longtime professor of early-childhood education at the University of Alabama, notes that the foundation of math is the ability to think abstractly about numbers — what five really means, beyond the numeral 5, or its place in a memorized sequence from one to 10 — as well as the logical relationships between numbers. “Not many 5- and 6-year-olds understand words like ‘forty’ and ‘fifty,’ ” Kamii writes in the report. So, while kindergartners can memorize the numbers from 1 to 100 with enough repetition, Kamii says that’s, “like making them memorize nonsense syllables.”
This leads to the other major criticism of the kindergarten standards — the pressure to meet them will intensify a push that began with No Child Left Behind for more academic drills, more lecture-style instruction and work sheets, and more testing in kindergarten.
“Young children learn best in active, hands-on ways and in the context of meaningful real-life experiences,” notes a statement of “grave concerns” about the kindergarten standards signed by hundreds of teachers and education scholars, including Howard Gardner, the Harvard developmental psychologist known for his theory of multiple intelligences and their importance in learning. “Overuse of didactic instruction and testing cuts off children’s initiative, curiosity, and imagination, limiting their engagement in school,” according to the statement.
While the high-stakes tests created to assess the Common Core don’t currently begin until third grade, kindergartners are subject to multiple screenings, diagnostics, and progress assessments throughout the year. And teachers say the guidelines for interpreting the latest editions of these tests have ratcheted up to be in line with the Common Core.
Carlsson-Paige predicts more kindergarten teachers like Sluyter will quit and more parents, at every level, will balk at standardized testing if nothing changes. “People are frustrated, because these education policies have been top-down for so long,” she says. “People are fed up, and they’re going to do what they can do.”