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In Brookline, there’s a worry that kindergarten has lost its joy

Kindergarten has traditionally been a time for storybooks and building blocks. But in Brookline, teachers and parents say academic demands on students are too high.
Kindergarten has traditionally been a time for storybooks and building blocks. But in Brookline, teachers and parents say academic demands on students are too high.(George Rizer for the Boston Globe/File 2015)

Kindergarten has traditionally been a time for storybooks and building blocks. But in Brookline, teachers and parents are complaining that students spend far too much of their day at their desks like office workers — and not enough time learning through play.

Amanda Livengood said she was floored by the pressure-cooker environment her 5-year-old daughter encountered in kindergarten this past school year in Brookline, one of the state’s highest-performing school systems.

“It totally knocked her self-esteem down,” she said. “She would come home and say she hates school or she hates reading. She didn’t want to go to school. She was calling herself stupid. If I tried to quiz her on things, she would shut down.”

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For the past month, Brookline has been embroiled in an emotional debate over whether kindergarten has become too academically demanding, causing anxiety levels of 5- and 6-year-olds to climb.

More than two dozen kindergarten teachers signed a five-page letter imploring school officials to bring more joy and play back into the program. Parents launched an online petition that garnered more than 500 signatures. And the issue has been the subject of School Committee meetings, where teachers wore stickers on their shirts with such statements as “Let Kids Feel Success Not Stress” and “Playing IS Learning.”

“We see many of our kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read,” the teachers wrote in their letter to school officials. “A significant body of research exists showing the negative consequences to children’s emotional well-being when they are forced to read before their developing brains make sense of it. Reading sooner does not always mean better.”

School officials, who issued their own letter June 18 defending the kindergarten curriculum, nevertheless say they are open to exploring changes to the program and have already held one meeting with kindergarten teachers.

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Brookline Superintendent Andrew Bott.
Brookline Superintendent Andrew Bott. (Public Schools of Brookline)

“Kindergarten teachers raised important questions about the balance between constructive play and teacher-organized learning focused on developing foundational literacy skills,” Superintendent Andrew Bott and Deputy Superintendent Nicole Gittens wrote, adding that many teachers do both.

“A walk through any given kindergarten classroom will reveal spaces that are rich with print and that fill children with a love of reading,” they wrote. “Children also engage in play-based learning that allows them to grow and practice social skills. Play happens, and children learn through play and teacher-organized activities every day.”

At a time when a growing number of teachers and parents nationwide have become fed up with standardized testing and other government mandates to boost student achievement, Brookline has emerged as the latest flashpoint about whether those edicts have gone too far — compelling school systems to pile on more academics in kindergarten to ensure students are achieving at higher levels sooner in subsequent grades.

A retired Cambridge kindergarten teacher, Susan Sluyter, made national headlines five years ago when she wrote her resignation letter after more than 25 years of teaching, deriding the evolution of kindergarten from “hands-on exploration, investigation, joy and love of learning” to “testing, data collection, competition and punishment.”

“One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms,” she wrote.

Against the backdrop of the debate is a growing stack of research chronicling the rising demands of kindergarten.

For instance, a study published in 2016 — “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” — examined public kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010 and found that kindergarten teachers in the later years “devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment, and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.”

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Stephanie Jones, a professor of early childhood development at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said the academic demands of kindergarten are increasing because of two factors: More students are ready to tackle challenging material in kindergarten because of an expansion of high-quality preschool, while school systems nationwide are ratcheting up all their programs, from kindergarten through Grade 12, so that students graduate college- and career-ready.

But she added that kindergartens still need to maintain a strong emphasis on play-based learning and other classroom activities that can harness the high energy levels of the 5- and 6-year-olds.

“It’s good to have rigorous standards,” she said. “We don’t want to leave kids behind and have low expectations. . . . But rigor has to be developmentally sensitive.”

The shifting demands of kindergarten, Jones said, have created somewhat of an identity crisis for the program as well as widely uneven quality. This fall, data from a long-term early education study that Jones is coleading at Harvard should shed further light on the variation in quality and the balance between play-based learning and traditional desk work.

Brookline officials contend they have the right balance. The school system follows the state’s learning standards for literacy, writing, and math.

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According to the state website, by the time kindergarten students exit in June, they should know such concepts in math as counting to 100 by ones and tens; writing numbers up to 20; using some basic addition and subtraction; comparing objects by measuring weight, length, and capacity; and naming, describing, and comparing shapes.

In literacy, kindergarten students should know how stories and poems are the same or different; how to identify uppercase and lowercase letters; and how to recognize punctuation marks and many common words.

But in Brookline, confusion exists over whether the school system has set a higher expectation for kindergartners: knowing how to read.

The kindergarten academic progress reports suggest this expectation. Under instructional reading level, the report says “at this level, your child not only reads with reasonable accuracy and comprehension, but can also articulate that comprehension in oral conversations.” Students are rated on whether they meet, exceed, or fall short of this expectation.

But Mary Brown, senior director of teaching and learning, said in an interview that kindergartners do not need to know how to read in order to move on to first grade. She expressed optimism that the issues in kindergarten would be worked out.

“Everyone agrees we want balance and project-based learning, and classrooms alive with kids moving around and being curious,” said Brown, a former principal. “We want to make sure teachers feel supported.”

Carol Schraft, a longtime Brookline resident and former principal, said it was remarkable to see kindergarten teachers lead a rebellion.

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“Kindergarten teachers tend to be timid,” she said.

Discontent with changes to the kindergarten program has increased in recent years as the school district has tried to remedy uneven quality among classrooms that often resulted from teachers having greater latitude to develop their own lesson plans and discretion in how they used classroom time.

The district’s effort has brought some standardized approaches, but teachers say there is now too little time for play-based learning.

Vicki Milstein, who retired last month as principal of early education in Brookline, said she was pleased that Brookline educators and parents were shining a light for the rest of the country on the challenges facing kindergarten.

“I think there is a shared wish for children to have a wonderful and appropriate and engaging experience,” she said. “It’s no one’s goal to stress children in the first phase of the continuum.”

She added, “We want all children to learn and achieve at high levels. The question is what is the best way to do that.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.