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The Pressure Is On, and the Kids Suffer in . . . Kindergarten?

By Jay Mathews
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

We have two sets of twins who are in fourth grade and kindergarten at a well-regarded public school in Bowie. The difference I see in the four years since my older children were in kindergarten is astounding.

I do not remember the older children having tests in kindergarten. Now they have tests at least monthly in math, reading, social studies and science. The tests are multiple choice so that they can practice filling in little bubbles to be ready for the Maryland State Assessment in three years. For this week's math worksheet, they were required to cut and paste the days of the week in order (acceptable to me) and then explain how they knew their answer was correct (what are they supposed to write for that?).

This year's kindergartners were starting to write sentences by the second month. They started with a simple "I see" and quickly moved up to things such as, "I go to school." They are expected to learn a new sentence each week and write it with a capital letter at the beginning, correct letter formation and spelling, spacing between the words, and a period at the end. Is this really essential for kindergarten?

Four years ago, kindergartners took a rest time for the first half of the year. Now, even the pre-K at our school isn't allowed a rest time. One of my daughters copes well with the long day. The other, who was in Head Start last year (where they had a full hour of rest each afternoon), is tired, cranky and overstimulated.

Both of my daughters' teachers are wonderful and try to work in some fun within the tight constraints of the curriculum. One of the teachers has told me that the kindergarten curriculum is what used to be the first-grade curriculum. What evidence do we have that this pushing is beneficial to the children? While some of the children can handle the pressure well, others cannot. One of my daughters has mastered her kindergarten reading and moved on to first-grade words. The other one struggles to keep up and hates school.

You asked [Jan. 29 column] whether there has been a change in kindergarten, and whether it is hurting our kids. I would answer yes on both counts.

Molly Holloway

Bowie

This approach to kindergarten appears to have produced significant gains in reading and math achievement for students in this age group throughout this region and in other parts of the country. The achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed as a result. I have seen no research confirming your impression of an increase in bad side effects, but they might be there. Anybody have any ideas for preserving those gains with less pain?

Dear Extra Credit:

University of Chicago freshman Josh Lerner's Advanced Placement experience ["Two Radically Different AP Experiences," Feb. 5] is contrary to mine. Learn-by-teaching is an accepted pedagogical technique. It works, too.

I remember back to my freshman year in a flossy Eastern college -- a hick from a public school in the sticks. I had never even heard of calculus before I got to college, and I was floundering in differential calculus. While studying for the midterm exam, I asked a fellow student from Fargo, N.D., for help. He encapsulated the key concept for me in under five minutes, using concrete analogies to farm tractors and implements. I did so well on the exam that when the assistant professor handed back the blue books, he commented on the surprising progress one member of the class had made since the last quiz.

Four years later in law school, student study groups were de rigueur, facilitated by the school's annual distribution of a softbound book containing the preceding year's exams.

Last semester, 50 years later, before an evening seminar, I often sat in Mark's Cafe on the terrace level of the University of Pennsylvania library, where I could overhear the conversations at adjoining tables. Groups of four or five undergraduate classmates clustering around ganged laptops would discuss how class papers could be structured. Same practice and, I hope, the same result.

William Malone

Bethesda

So do I.

Dear Extra Credit:

Those of us who educate our children at home are not interested in debating, "Which is better: public school or home education?" The answer to that question varies, as it depends on so many factors -- the student, the teacher, the school, the student's family. We just want people to understand that home schooling is one of several viable options for educating our offspring.

The parent who chooses to teach her own does not become a martyr to her children's education, as your letter writer ["Parent Says Some Things Can't Be Taught at Home," Jan. 15] mistakenly assumes. Tutoring one's child takes neither the time nor the energy that teaching a classroom full of children would require. And, no matter what educational choice is made, there will be trade-offs.

Choosing a private school, for instance, might entail a long commute and/or a second job on the parents' part; opting to send one's offspring to public school, on the other hand, might require more volunteer hours from the family. Both of these choices find parents helping their children with homework or school projects in the evenings and on weekends. So choosing home education doesn't necessarily mean spending that much more time on one's children's education. Rather, it is simply time spent in different ways.

Why can't we embrace the diversity of the human learning experience instead of pitting ourselves against each other? If public school works for your child and your family, then that is wonderful. But if it doesn't, isn't it nice to know that there is an entire community of people willing to welcome you into the world of home education?

Rena Corey

Reston

Amen.

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