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Tracing the Roots of Kindergarten Readiness

Publication Date: 2008-05-22

This is from Peter Campbell's blog, Transform Education, March 18, 2008

Imagine this. You want to learn how to play the piano. So you sign up for a class for beginners. You show up for day one of your piano class. The teacher gives you a test on how well you can play scales, finger dexterity, and how well you can read music. You don't know how to do any of these things. You say to the teacher, "Hey, I can't do any of these things. I thought this was a class for beginners!" She replies, "Yes, it is a class for beginners. But all beginners are expected to know how to do these things." You reply, "But I'm a beginner. You know, a beginner. As in I'm just beginning. As in I don't know how to do these things because I'm a beginner."

Seems crazy, right? So does "Kindergarten readiness." As I've been saying over and over on this blog, 4-year-old children are said to be "behind" on the first day of pre-K. I find this mind-numbingly idiotic and oxymoronic. How ironic that a policy called "No Child Left Behind" can define 4-year-olds as "behind" on day one of the grade BEFORE Kindergarten. Arrrggh.

Go to this list of reviews of the book Let's Get Ready For Kindergarten! and see what I mean. Here's a good example:

In a kid-friendly format with engaging illustrations, Let's Get Ready for Kindergarten! has dry-erase pages where children can practice again and again the skills they are learning. Children can practice their alphabet, numbers, rhyming, time, calendar, seasons and much more.

Huh?? 4-year-olds practicing telling time??? When did the giant stone tablet drop down from the sky and declare that little kids were supposed to know all this stuff before they even start school?

So if this is so crazy, then why is it the common stock of the land? Why do so many people buy this line of thinking?

Betty Jones, PhD -- a member of the faculty of the school of education at Pacific Oaks College -- wrote this narrative account in a personal e-mail communication to me (my emphasis added):

Through the 50's the emphasis in university lab schools, parent co-ops, and other good preschools (serving primarily middle and upper-class children) remained comfortably on play and social-emotional development, on setting up an appropriate environment, and on observing and responding to child behavior. (I was a grad student in Child Development at University of Wisconsin in the 1950's and that's what I learned; Erikson's developmental theory was basic to our work.) There wasn't a push for standardizing curriculum or teaching basic skills; this was preschool, nursery school. (I wrote an article and gave the name to an early NAEYC publication, Curriculum is What Happens. The editor added the rest of the title :Planning Is the Key. Several decades later, writing Emergent Curriculum, I was still making the same point.)

Head Start and accountability required that programs adopt a curriculum. There were 10 approved models, ranging from strict behavioral (Bereiter and Engelmann) to very open (Bank Street and Education Development Corp in Newton, MA). There were comparative studies of their effectiveness. Bereiter and Englemann asserted that poor children didn't have time to play; they needed to catch up. That idea has continued to influence funding and politicians, reaching its zenith in No Child Left Behind and increasingly pushing down elementary curriculum into kindergarten and preschool.

Here is my effort to add to her explanation.

Head Start

Head Start was created in 1965. It was designed to help end poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs.

But the term "head start" suggested that raising children was essentially a race. Very young children could be given a leg up -- literally a "head start" -- in the race to whatever the intended prize was: admission to an Ivy League school, preserving the family's prestige, or simply being able to survive in the future. So if low-income kids could be given a head start, why shouldn't all kids be given a head start? The logic seemed (and still seems) unimpeachable. Not giving children every advantage has become unimaginable, and being a "good parent" is measured in terms of how many enrichments activities each child is engaged in.

Of course, what this "head start for every child" approach overlooks is the fact that kids who already had a head start are given an even bigger lead. So instead of narrowing, the achievement gap widens.

Markets and Marketing

As dual-income families became the norm in this country's professional class, there arose an unprecedented problem: who was going to raise their children? The extended family had all but vanished, replaced by the much more "efficient" nuclear family. There were no in-laws or grandparents to assist in child-rearing. The only thing these middle to upper-middle-class nuclear families with two working parents could do was pay someone to do it for them.

So we witness the tremendous growth of daycare facilities, where children typically start at the age of 2 or 3 months. These children are essentially raised by paid professional surrogate parents. Places like KinderCare began to see this market as in need of some tapping. They, and others like them, developed marketing plans to attract parents, saying they did more than "just play." They offered a leg up to their clients, giving very young children not just blocks to play with, but exercises in math and reading. Anxious parents responded. KinderCare Learning centers comprises approximately 1,900 community-based centers in 38 states and the District of Columbia serving more than 200,000 children and employing approximately 41,000 people. Note this observation from a marketing trade magazine, Direct:

The benefits pitched on [KinderCare's marketing] pieces has changed . . . , reflecting parents' expressed desire for a learning environment, even more so than a loving environment, or a convenient location -- or even a low-cost care option, as reasons for enrolling their children.

Sales in 2005 topped $16 billion.

Other markets serving anxious parents have also erupted. Kumon was started 50 years ago in Japan by Toru Kumon, a teacher and parent who wanted to help his son do better in school. According to their web site, "The unique instructional method he created was so successful that his son was able to do calculus by the time he was in the sixth grade." Kumon has more than 1,500 Kumon Centers in North America alone. With centers in 44 countries, Kumon "has helped more students succeed worldwide than any other after-school program."

Fear Is U.S.

We are afraid in this country. We've been ginned up by stories of child predators and gang-banging, of al Quaida, toys from China, and the health effects of mold. Despite the fact that I never wore a seatbelt -- much less rode in a car seat -- as a child, I simply cannot imagine not strapping both my kids in tight to their car seats, even if it's only a couple blocks away. And despite the fact that I never wore a helmet to ride a bike or a skateboard, I would never for a moment not demand that my kids wore helmets -- always.

Our actions are practical and they make sense, but they also serve as daily practices that ingrain in us the uncontested notion that life is a very dangerous place. Yet we do all of these things -- buckling our seatbelts, donning our helmets -- not merely unconsciously, but as default actions. We literally do not think of these things as we do them or think them, yet they frame our perception and, thus, our reality.

We're also afraid that we're not going to make it as a country. Just look at the rhetoric surrounding public education. The key rationale for public education -- as it is currently framed -- is to "compete in the global economy," i.e., beat the Chinese and the Indians at the game of global domination and "maintain our current high standard of living." Look at the speech of every major U.S. politician in the last 5 years -- with the exception of Kucinich and Nader -- and you'll see the meme "to compete in the global economy" or some version of "preparing our children for the 21st century economy" in every proclamation on the purpose of education.

We talk a lot about this as a country because there's concern that we're going to lose the game of global domination. But we talk about this -- to ourselves, mostly -- as parents because we're afraid that our kids are not going to make it. Make it out of high school. Make it into college. But also make it in life. Make it past drug addiction, pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases. Make it past the all-consuming doubt of their teenage years and into somewhere called "happy" or perhaps "fulfilled."

So take an anti-poverty program for inspiration, throw in some anxious, over-achieving parents who have outsourced childrearing to professionals, and now add a dash of fear about the future of the planet and you have the noxious cocktail that gives rise to such nonsense as "Kindergarten readiness." It's nonsense, but it makes perfect sense.


At 12:15 AM, Blogger marcia said...

You forgot to add one thing to the last list....make it in the job market. I have kids in college, and the thought of them getting a rewarding (financially, spiritually...?) job in this economy and corporate climate is causing me some consternation. I agree with you about kindergarten. I've made the comment many times that people need to relax and understand that EVERYTHING is NOT going to happen in kindergarten. It's only the beginning of 12 more years of .....(fill in the blank.)And as a kindergarten teacher, I also have to say that the kids in my class love to learn. They love to write..and read...and play. Writing is especially important to them. If we miss writing workshop for some reason, they will beg me to have writing time..I could wallpaper several houses with just this year's writing. Kids are amazing. We just need to allow them more kid time.

At 12:15 PM, Blogger Peter Campbell said...

Thanks for your comments, Marcia. Given that you are a Kindergarten teacher, can you offer some ideas about what we can do -- parents and other citizens -- to combat this madness?

Part of me believes that "Kindergarten readiness" is part of the zeitgeist and nothing can be done to alter it. This, needless to say, makes me incredibly depressed.

At 5:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't heard the term "nursery school" used since . . . probably since I was IN "nursery school" myself (mid-1960's). As the name has changed, so has the purpose. . . .

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Mrs. C said...

Hello, Peter!

I stumbled upon your blog through someone else's. I have a boy who would have been in kindergarten this year. Last year, I began homeschooling my then-first grader. Emperor would listen in to the lesson because he WANTED to. He was always given a choice. Actually, he was in a "special needs" preschool because he didn't pass the name-the-colours and stack-the-blocks type of test they gave.

He would pester for a worksheet when Elf got one. By the time he entered kindergarten, he was adding and subtracting multidigit numbers and adding columns of figures.

The kindergarten was "ideal" just as you described with a lot of playing and what-not. But he couldn't hack it there. He would climb on the tables or run about and be silly. He was constantly getting himself suspended. In the first week of kindergarten!!

We pulled him after about a week and a half and started homeschooling. He's just doing the same lessons as Elf, who is beginning third grade now.

YET, this is the same kid who tested poorly. He does an awful job on tests... How on earth does one measure "readiness," then??

And as an aside, thank GOD we don't live in one of those "mandatory testing" states for homeschoolers b/c he'd bomb the test due to running about the room or twisting himself like a pretzel. But he can read and multiply, etc. as long as you do not require sitting or being still.

At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In affluent communities competition for the very best private schools is amazing; one school admitted only 1 of 7 applicants. Every child who "passed" their 2.5 hour kindergrarten assessmemt had homework in PreK, can read small books, count to over 100 and sit still for 20 or more minutes. This is the norm, not the exception.

I'm delighted my son was accepted, as he will be learning from the best teachers (two per class) with high IQ peers (22 per class). Really, who cares what worked fifty years ago? Set the bar higher and our kids will achieve.

At 4:36 PM, Blogger Peter Campbell said...

Dear Anonymous - I understand that you're delighted that your son made it into the elite Kindergarten class.

But if your son starts to burn out from too much too early, if he becomes stressed and anxious, if he cares more about competition and less about learning, and if he develops negative self-esteem from being in such a developmentally inappropriate environment, will the bar really have been set higher?

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