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NCLB Outrages

Kindergarten used to be play and naptime no more

Ohanian Comment: Such stories about the disappearance of naptime have become a dime a dozen, and the public seems to accept this corporate imperative of turning kindergarten into a skill drill zone.

Play must have a purpose? Pardon me, play is children's work. Play is its own purpose. Maybe the writers meant to assert that under NCLB, play must have a corporate purpose.

The writers have done a good job of bringing together kindergarten outrages from around the country.

Jenny LaCoste-Caputo and Jeanne Russell

When a new school year begins, Sylvia Lopez likes to read comforting stories to her kindergarten class, stories that ease the children's fears and prepare them for what's to come.

This year she chose books with pictures of children in a kindergarten class playing in a sandbox, dressing up in costumes, making art and taking naps.

The stories are reassuring. They also came with a not-so-reassuring caveat for Lopez's class of 5-year-olds at Monroe May Elementary in the Northside Independent School District.

"I tell the children that's not how it happens anymore," said Lopez, a 33-year veteran of teaching kindergarten. "We still try to make it fun and meaningful, but it's all about academics now."

The word kindergarten comes from the German words kinder children and garten garden and conjures up an image of children sharing and taking turns, unlocking the secrets of letters and numbers and discovering the magic of books. A decade ago, most programs were half-day, and they included snack breaks, recess and naps.

Today, state officials estimate that Texas spends about $1.7 billion educating 350,108 kindergarten students in mostly full-day programs. With increased standards and accountability beginning at the state level and solidified with President Bush's sweeping public school overhaul known as No Child Left Behind, play must have a purpose, recess is endangered and naptime is almost unheard of.

Of the three largest school districts Northside, North East and San Antonio only Northside still allows naptime. Even there, not every school has naptime, and most will have phased it out by January.

In other words, kindergarten isn't what it used to be. Not only is there pressure to succeed, there are repercussions if children fail.

For the past decade, as standardized testing has taken firm hold in public schools, more kindergarten students in Texas have been held back each year. And the role of play, which many early childhood education experts see as key to learning for the youngest children, is under siege.

"It's really first grade now," said Dottie Flanagan, a kindergarten teacher at Oak Grove Elementary School in the North East Independent School District. Flanagan has been teaching kindergarten for more than 30 years and has seen remarkable changes in standards and curricula.

"Anything that takes a lot of time, like finger painting, has been pushed aside," she said. "Building with blocks, that's great for fine motor skills, but those are getting dusty on the shelf."

Wasting no time

The race to prepare students begins in kindergarten.

Texas children take their first major test in third grade, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. They must pass the test to continue to the fourth grade. TAKS scores are also used to rank schools, and chronic underperformers are subject to sanctions.

"I think we feel the pressure more and more every year. Even though we don't want it to be, everything we do is dictated by the test," Lopez said.

Across the nation, proponents of standardized testing, especially for underperforming low-income and minority students, are calling for rigorous academics, beginning in kindergarten.

In August, in Alabama, Mobile County kindergarten teachers learned that they would be required to give their students letter grades in five subjects: reading, language, math, science and social studies.

Last month, calling for expansion of full-day kindergarten, Susan Castillo, Oregon's superintendent for public instruction, cited the demands of the global economy when she wrote in the (Portland) Oregonian: "If you really want to increase the number of engineers in the pipeline, you need to introduce kids to math and science when they're five or six."

Jack Fletcher, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and one of the authors of the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, which teachers use to measure a kindergartener's literacy, said testing helps pinpoint areas where kids need help, "and it becomes harder and harder and harder to intervene (the longer) you wait."

Others add that test results can help hold educators' feet to the fire.

"People say there's too much testing. That's not true. The only difference is now the administrators are supposed to do something about it," said Siegfried Engelmann, an education professor at the University of Oregon who believes children benefit from explicit, skills-based teaching. "In the past, they'd get that data and do nothing about it."

Some educators believe there is a middle ground.

For example, an emphasis on play may serve the typical middle class child well, but low-income students, who may come to school with fewer basic skills, also need skills-based instruction, said Frances Stott, vice president and dean of academic affairs at the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school named after child development expert Erik Erikson.

"We began to realize we needed to put the content back into curriculum and make it more explicit," Stott said. "Certainly, (more explicit instruction) is fairer to all children. Also, it does prepare children better for the first grade. On the other hand, I think we never get the middle right."

Critics of the academic thrust believe it has led to creative teachers leaving the profession, children being held back unnecessarily, and using test results to label young children, stifling their potential.

Like Stott, Dominic Gullo, professor and deputy chair of the elementary and early childhood education department at Queens College, City University of New York, believes that making early childhood classrooms more stimulating and academically rich has helped society realize that young children are capable of more than previously thought. He also has concerns.

For example, both Gullo and Stott say the increasingly common practice of holding children back in kindergarten ignores research that shows that young brains advance at an uneven pace, and that rapidly maturing children often "catch up" in first grade, or anytime until they reach 8 years of age.

Gullo also criticizes "redshirting," a practice among some affluent parents who see kindergarten as a way to give their kids a better shot at a top university. These parents wait until their children are 6, or in some cases, almost 7, to begin school, not because the kids aren't ready, but in hopes that they will outpace their classmates.

A chorus of experts worries about test results being used to prohibit children from participating in activities, labeling them at-risk or keeping them from advancing to the next grade.

"They're looking at one aspect of one part of a child's development," said Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, said of those who push for more testing.

Catching up in a year

In urban districts like the San Antonio Independent School District, preparing poor kids for the first grade can be especially challenging.

"Man, they're expecting a lot of these kids," said David Espiritu, principal at Green Elementary. "There are definitely higher standards in kindergarten than there ever were before. It's a good thing, though. What they learn here is the foundation for the rest of their education."

Espiritu believes focusing on academics in kindergarten helped the school earn the coveted ranking of "recognized" in the state's accountability system this year, even though nearly 80 percent of the school's families are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

He is aiming for the state's highest ranking of "exemplary" next year a distinction earned by 7 percent of Texas campuses in 2006 and his single-minded focus is one reason no recess time is built into the school's schedule. Espiritu leaves the decision of whether to break for free play up to individual teachers.

Local kindergarten teacher Flanagan said balancing the state's academic requirements with creative activities is the greatest challenge teachers face. The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills the state's mandated curriculum for every grade level includes 200 individual standards kindergarten students must learn.

"So many things have been pushed aside," Flanagan said. "I do my best to make everything we do as joyful as possible, while teaching the standards at the same time."

Meisels said it's good to challenge children to do more, but wrong to expect specific and uniform results at an age when their development is widely varied.

Ellen Frede, co-director of the New Jersey-based National Institute of Early Education Research, agreed.

"To me a high expectation is not a problem as long as it's not a stupid expectation," she said.

At Green Elementary, Armando Martinez sets the example in his district for balancing fun with academics. He uses songs, chants and nursery rhymes to teach. Children can, as he says, "get the wiggles out," and Martinez takes his kids to recess every day.

"I look at what we taught 10 years ago and what we're doing now, and it is amazing. The kids are reaching the goal," Martinez said. "But they are 5 years old. They need discovery. They need play. They need wonder. But they also have to be prepared for that third-grade TAKS."

At Monroe May Elementary, parent Kelli Golobek said she doesn't think her daughter's kindergarten class has been too difficult, but she worries.

"Honestly, she's exhausted at the end of the day," Golobek said. "Kinder when I was little was more about playtime. What was kinder now seems more like pre-school and kinder is more academic. I don't know if that's a good thing or not."

In the classroom

At Monroe May, teacher Lopez builds in structure from day one.

During story time, some children listen intently, others fidget, and some ask: "Is it playtime yet?"

After the story, Lopez groups the children and directs them to their learning centers, some of which are designated for a specific activity, such as painting a bridge in response to the nursery rhyme "London Bridge," and one which allows them to invent their own games with blocks and make-believe furniture.

She'll work with one group in the writing center, while the others do activities on their own. They all get a turn at each center.

By the end of the week, they'll have the drill down.

In most cases, kindergarten centers have morphed from art, drama and housekeeping to ones focusing on literacy, math and writing.

Structured play alternates with pencil-and-paper assignments or direct instruction.

On Lopez's first day, she talks to a group of children in the writing center about what they want to learn in kindergarten. Then she asks them to write it.

Six pairs of solemn eyes stare back at her. Their hands don't reach for the pencils. Their brows are furrowed.

"But I don't know how to write," one little girl with brown curly hair finally confesses.

"That's OK," Lopez says. "That's why we're here."

She demonstrates that different children write differently. Some may still scribble. Some may know how to make a few letters. Some may know a few words.

She encourages them to write however they know how and then read the sentence back to her.

A few children scrawl random letters. Others repeat the letters of their name over and over again.

The idea, Lopez said, is for the children to identify print with spoken language, part of an approach called "emergent literacy."

Though she's always set high standards for her students, the stress of standards that seem to ratchet up every year weighs on her.

"When kids take their science test in fifth grade, they may be asked about something they learned in kindergarten," she said. " We need to make sure we're using the right vocabulary so they're prepared."

The school's principal, Kay Montgomery, a former kindergarten teacher, shelters her students as much as she can.

"The amount of things they're cramming into a day, I think the timeline is a little unrealistic," Montgomery said. "I think it's hard to be a child today."

Still, veteran educators say children are reaching and surpassing standards once considered unattainable.

"When I came back into the classroom, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to hold the standard. Five-year-olds were proving me wrong left and right," said Linda Hamilton, who oversees North East's kindergarten curriculum. "It makes me want to roll back time a little bit and raise the expectations for those early classes I taught. The bar is up there, and it's at a good place."

Teaching first grade was good preparation for Park Village Elementary School kindergarten teacher Jennifer Felty, who says those expectations have moved down to kindergarten.

"We can push them," said Felty, who was named her school's teacher of the year last year. " But I don't want anyone to feel like a failure in kindergarten if they're not where the state of Texas says they're supposed to be."

— Jenny LaCoste-Caputo and Jeanne Russell
San Antonio Express-News


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