Ideas

Is the Common Core killing kindergarten?

John W. Tomac for the Boston Globe

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.” The school district did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

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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 impetus for developing the Common Core standards for kindergarten through 12th grade was the worry that American education was losing its edge in a globalized economy fueled by innovation.

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“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’s defenders say critics are misreading the kindergarten standards, which are meant to be goals, not dictates. What’s more, standards alone don’t tell teachers how to teach. What standards actually do, backers contend, is level the playing field and help keep students from falling behind early, which they say is the real and lasting danger for our youngest learners.

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. Since then, 43 states have adopted the standards, with the stated aim of getting students college and career ready when they graduate from high school.

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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.”

Emergent-reader texts include repetitive lines like, “Brown bear. Brown bear. What do you see?” or, “The fat cat sat on a mat.” These are no trouble for some 5-year-old kindergartners and even some 4-year-olds, says Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an emeritus professor of early-childhood education at Lesley University and the report’s lead author. But, Carlsson-Paige adds, many normally developing kids won’t read these books on their own until age 7. “When we require specific skills to be learned by every child at the same time, that misses a basic idea in early childhood education,” she says, “which is that there’s a wide range to learning everything in the early years.”

Take walking as an example. An average child might learn to walk at 1 year, while some will be walking at 8 months and others might not take their first steps until they’re 15 months. They all end up walking just fine.

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.

Given the wide developmental variation in young learners and the evidence that early reader advantages fade, the report concludes that a kindergarten literacy standard will simply crush the spirits of the late bloomers, linking school with “feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and confusion.”

Backers of the Common Core, such as Silas Kulkarni, an ELA specialist with Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded to help implement the standards, say reading emergent-reader texts is not an unreasonable expectation for kids at the end of their kindergarten year. Kulkarni points out that the National Association for the Education of Young Children, or NAEYC, teaching guide for kindergarten states that by the end of kindergarten, “most children will be reading simple and predictable text.”

“Some kids won’t get to ‘The fat cat sat on a mat’ in kindergarten, and that’s OK,” Kulkarni says, which is why the kindergarten standards, unlike those of later grades, expect progress, not mastery. The standards are introduced with a note stating that, “Children are expected to demonstrate increasing awareness and competence in the areas that follow.”

Carlsson-Paige, however, 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.”

If the standards aren’t about mastery, then why have them? Kulkarni says it’s about equity. “The idea of a standard is that every class should strive for this. Every student deserves this,” he says.

Unlike the advantages for reading ahead of the pack in kindergarten, which may fade over time, research shows more robust, long-term negative academic effects on students who are struggling readers, falling behind their peers.

As Kyle Snow, director of applied research for NAEYC, sums it up, “Children with an early advantage continue to do well, generally, though they may lose their advantage over time, but children lagging behind tend to chronically lag behind.”

Some studies trace the problem of falling behind early as far back as first grade. The most robust effects, however, start with students who are still struggling readers in third grade. That’s when students traditionally transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn,” so progress in every academic class from history to science is hurt by slow reading.

“A lot of students, often from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggling schools, aren’t getting what they need early on to get them reading proficiently by third grade,” says Kulkarni. “The research on what happens to these kids is staggering and depressing.”

There are similar findings about the long-term negative effects on students who are still behind in math in third grade. The Common Core standards are designed to keep kids on track, from grade to grade. Still, critics of the standards say the costs of pushing the developing minds of kindergartners too fast can quickly overtake the supposed benefits of fortifying them against falling behind later.

That’s the argument of Constance Kamii, a longtime professor of early-childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Kamii wrote the second DEY report, published last month, attacking several of the Common Core’s kindergarten math standards, including that students should be able to count to 100 by ones and 10s, as well as compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into 10 ones plus some further ones.

Kamii 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.

One Boston parent, Leslie MacKinnon, who has two young children attending public schools in Dorchester, said she was surprised by the new rigor of kindergarten class. Her daughter, now finishing first grade, was among the older kids in her kindergarten class and had no problems. “There was a lot of work, a lot of memorization and skill building that I thought was crazy,” MacKinnon says. “But she handled it really well.”

MacKinnon’s son, however, started kindergarten last fall as one of the younger kids in his class. “He’s so overtaxed. He’s having the worst year ever,” she says. “He comes home with this giant backpack full of homework every night. I don’t make him do it. I feel like it’s just going to add to his discipline problems at school. He’s 5. He wants to be moving and doing art projects and playing with Legos.”

“Over the last half century, there’s been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to play,” says Boston College psychologist Peter Gray. “It’s through play that children gain the social abilities, the grit, the ability to control their impulses and solve their own problems that makes them resilient.”

Another Boston-area parent, Jennifer Debin, saw similar academic pressures put on her son’s kindergarten class in the Sherborn public schools. “It came as a surprise to me, during my observations of the classroom. There were a lot of work sheets, a lot of seat time, and it was all very teacher directed,” says Debin who volunteered as a class parent. “There wasn’t as much joy in learning, laughter, excitement, and just the noise and playfulness you’d expect in a place trying to get kids excited for that first voyage into school.”

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.

“One reading assessment we use has this chart that tells you, here’s where students should be at the end of kindergarten, and if you have a child testing in the middle somewhere, then here are some things to work on,” says Kathy Clunis D’Andrea, who has spent 15 years teaching kindergarten at the Mission Hill School, a public pilot school in Boston. “After the Common Core, that chart looked incredibly different. The expectations of reading level at the end of kindergarten were two times higher.”

The standards’ defenders say they don’t tell teachers how to teach. They provide a set of goals, not the paths to get there.

“There’s a big marketplace out there selling curricula and teaching materials to teachers and school districts, and not all of them are good,” says Heather Hill, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “But kindergarten teachers are a special group of people. They’re pretty protective of these kids’ minds. I’m relatively optimistic.”

“I think people are blaming these standards for the effects of high-stakes testing, something that started long before the Common Core,” says Kulkarni. “We share the concerns of turning kindergarten into a dull place of drills. And nobody who truly understands the Common Core would disagree.”

While the standards don’t prescribe teaching methods, a section of the introduction called “What is not covered by the standards” notes, “The use of play with young children is not specified by the Standards, but it is welcome as a valuable activity in its own right and as a way to help students meet the expectations in this document.”

Opponents dismiss that statement about play as window dressing. “It has little meaning when the statement is followed by 45 specific skills kindergarten children are expected to accomplish,” says Carlsson-Paige. The reality, she says, is that the juggernaut of standards tied to high-stakes testing is in motion, and the Common Core adds high-octane fuel. She 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.”

Chris Berdik is a freelance writer in Milton.

Related:

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How the American playground was born in Boston

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Editorial: For accountability in public schools, keep testing

Joanna Weiss: The good and bad of all that testing

Scott Lajoie: Get excited about the SATs

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the type of schools that Leslie MacKinnon’s children attend. They attend public schools.

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