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NCLB Outrages

Parents pushing young kids to get a jump on literacy

For the first time, Shelby County, TN county schools will begin gauging the reading comprehension of kindergartners.

By Lindsay Melvin

The traffic signal changes and from inside his mother's car, 5-year-old Keithran Hopson spells out "R-E-D."

"He's always sounding out everything he sees," said Takisha Pearson of Raleigh.

Her son is among a growing number of kids across Shelby County and the nation learning to read earlier.

Many children are now tackling Dr. Seuss -- once the trademark of a first-grader -- by the time they leave kindergarten.

Experts say the push is partly because of the need to meet No Child Left Behind benchmarks, but it's also the result of higher parent expectations.

"I've had the mother of a 2-year-old crying because she thought her child couldn't get into Harvard," said Sandra Brown Turner, director of Barbara K. Lipman Early Childhood School and Research at the University of Memphis.

From the time they enter kindergarten, children are now drilled in the alphabet and letter sounds.

And for the first time, county schools will begin gauging the reading comprehension of kindergartners.

"What we used to consider first grade is now kindergarten," said Susan Pittman, director of elementary education and early childhood for Shelby County Schools. "We're becoming a little more proactive assessing children at a younger level."

But Pittman says it's typical to see kids entering kindergarten already on the road to literacy.

In Memphis City Schools, the stress on literacy begins as early as prekindergarten.

"The majority of our children can read and write sentences by the time they go to first grade," said Linda Kennard, director of early childhood and elementary support.

City schools have also begun collecting data on young readers but won't have it available until later this summer.

Even without hard numbers, the shift in education can be seen at international reading conferences and in the workbooks and software being published for schools.

"The bar has been raised and the expectations have been raised," Kennard said.

Less than a decade ago, children were not taught to read until midway through first grade, according to Richard Allington professor for education literacy studies at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"Prior to that, kindergarten was largely forgotten," he said.

Under NCLB, children are being tested in reading by third grade. Early testing has also put each school's ability to educate its students under a microscope.

To help meet these expectations, early federal literacy programs including Even Start and Reading First, as well as Head Start centers, have cropped up at the pre-school and kindergarten level.

Yet educators say early literacy is as much a factor of parental expectations as it is federal pressure.

"Parents, college educated and not, have all gotten the idea that trophy children are the way to go," said Turner of the Lipman school.

Kindergarten and pre-school used to be about play and socialization, but now parents are demanding results, she said.

She worries children are being pushed into literacy too quickly.

"Literacy is not being able to read and write. First you listen and speak and then you learn to read and write," she said.

The expectations of parents have drastically altered since most of us were children, agrees Donna Jones early childhood specialist with county schools.

The change was spawned by educational television shows, Baby Einstein videos and brain development studies emphasizing the need for kids to read younger, she said.

"I struggle with it. I want children to have fun and be a child, but the kids are just more exposed," Jones said.

But Kennard says it's not all about drilling the alphabet into young students.

Children are learning the fundamentals in creative, fun ways -- while imagining they are taking an order in a restaurant or playing with magnetic letters, said the administrator.

"Their playing is their work," she said.

— Lindsay Melvin
Commercial Appeal


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