Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?

September 11, 2006

My almost three-year-old has had one week of preschool and he has already had homework. Granted, it wasn’t a tough assignment for us: He had to learn a list of Spanish words. We speak the language at home so he already knew most of the words.

But my heart went out to the non-native speakers who must have been peeved to find homework in their three-year-old’s book bag.

Still, even parents who are not signing up their toddlers at foreign language preschools, do not remain unscathed from what is increasingly becoming a trend in early schooling: more emphasis on reading and writing and less time for play. According to Newsweek’s recent cover story, kids are already arriving to first grade knowing how to read. It’s as if kindergarten has become the new first grade.

In the last decade, the earliest years of schooling have become less like a trip to “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and more like SAT prep. Thirty years ago first grade was for learning how to read. Now, reading lessons start in kindergarten and kids who don’t crack the code by the middle of first grade get extra help. Instead of story time, finger painting, tracing letters and snack, first graders are spending hours doing math work sheets and sounding out words in reading groups. In some places, recess, music, art and even social studies are being replaced by writing exercises and spelling quizzes.

I agree that we need less testing and more recess. Thankfully my son’s school does allot time for outdoor play, along with circle time and art projects. It also has zero testing, thank you very much.

But I thought that this article, overall, was rather alarmist in suggesting we are pushing our children to the brink of harm. Aside from the occasional anecdote, where’s the proof?

Sure, as I blogged about last week, there are competitive parents who do take their children’s academic futures — at 5 — way too seriously. Newsweek even cited the example of one North Carolina dad who asked the principal if his son ranked in the top 10 percent of his kindergarten class. Like I said, obnoxious.

But children are not fragile, and in fact, they show an aptitude for academia as early as infancy. I was irked when the Newsweek story stated in absolute terms that “many parents (and even some teachers and school administrators) believe — mistakenly — that the earlier the kids read independently, write legibly and do arithmetic, the more success they’ll have all through school.” Actually, the jury is still out on this. Lately, you are hearing from scientists who disagree with the emphasis on early learning. But as someone who has worked with preschoolers in the past, there is a large body of evidence that kids who come prepared to kindergarten do better academically in the later grades. Even worst, Newsweek did nothing to discredit this research — or present any of its own. Pretty shoddy.  

The magazine is right that all this emphasis on early childhood learning and the flashcard competitiveness is a pretty recent phenomenon. But I’d be curious as to where these children end up 10 years down the line.