First in an occasional series of articles about the grades that provide the building blocks of a child's education, starting with kindergarten
Chloe Ramick sat cross-legged on the floor of her kindergarten classroom, hunched over a super-size edition of "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" On a sheet of paper labeled "blue," the 5-year-old carefully wrote her name, then studied the book for a blue-colored animal and found a horse. She put a place marker in the book and then moved on to "green."
Across the room, teacher Trish Fichtner worked with a handful of students who each held the little picture book "Pumpkin Grow" and were taking turns reading -- all seven pages, with three words to a page. "A pumpkin seed," Krishna Kalaruth, 5, read aloud.
Soon it was time for singing, and the words went: "For-ty, fif-ty, six-ty, seven-ty" . . . up to 100, then back down again. Fichtner pointed to each number on a chart as the voices echoed.
Chloe and Krishna declared it all great fun, but that wasn't the real intention, said Susan Benezra, principal of McNair Elementary School in Herndon. The school's curriculum -- called "integrated" because it allows children to explore knowledge in various subjects in connection to their environments -- stresses early reading and math skills to prepare them for the rigors of first grade.
A key goal is for as many children as possible to leave kindergarten with basic reading skills. "It's no longer playing and just socialization," Benezra said. "Everything has an academic bent. The tooth chart isn't really to track lost teeth -- it's to help them count."
Kindergarten, which is German for "children's garden," is serious stuff these days. With half-day programs giving way to full days in state after state, the curriculum once saved for first grade has been pushed down to 5- and 6-year-olds. Nearly 98 percent of youngsters in the United States attend kindergarten, 60 percent of them in full-day programs, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Once focused heavily on a child's social and emotional development, kindergarten is now a largely academic experience -- sometimes with math drills and daily homework and worksheets. In many schools, time for music, art, recess and games has withered.
Kindergarten also has become a political battleground, as lawmakers, educators and parents argue over what should be taught.
"Kindergarten has changed drastically over the years from a 'get-used-to-school' type of experience for young children to one that is very academic," said Susan Catapano, assistant professor of teaching and learning at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "A critical issue is what the child's experiences prior to entering kindergarten were and how well-prepared they are to engage in the academic requirements of kindergarten today."
Ready or not, kids are expected to do more in kindergarten now than just a few years ago, and many educators say that makes sense in many ways.
"Just because they are little doesn't mean they can't learn and absorb," Benezra said.
For one thing, large numbers of children are starting kindergarten at older ages than in the past; the age of the typical child is 51/2, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. New brain research also shows that the very young can learn a lot, and children are coming to kindergarten more sophisticated than in the past as a result of exposure to media and more prevalent preschool, said Priscilla Wohlstetter of the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California.
Those factors have come into play at a time when the country's educational establishment has emphasized teaching basic academic skills and accountability, causing such teachers as Stacy Gaddy to change their focus.
"In the last four years, we've become much more academic than we had been," said Gaddy, a teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Northwest Washington. "Before, it was the colors, the numbers. We're getting down to reading, much more concept-based. And, yes, we do expect children to read by the time they leave" kindergarten.
But many educators worry that too many children are no longer being allowed to be children.
"What has been lost is much of the focus on socio-emotional development that provided the foundations in behavioral training for school and life," said Jill Fox, associate professor of teacher education at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Education.
Though children are more savvy today than 20 years ago, their development patterns haven't changed fundamentally, educators say, and they need to be taught the same social skills -- how to cooperate, for example -- that their parents learned in kindergarten.
Also, modern research has revealed the many different ways children learn, yet some educators say the trend in public schools is to teach only one way.
"The stream of our knowledge base of how young children learn has never been stronger [but] the political stream has come in and said we have to standardize all approaches because this is the way to guarantee the outcome," said Cynthia L. Paris, an assistant professor of individual and family studies at the University of Delaware.
In many kindergarten classes, the stress on academics has resulted in programs that teach students facts in isolation, without much effort to link it to the children's lives or explain concepts, Benezra said.
Some children are taught, for example, to memorize math facts but have no idea what they are doing. Debbie Fulcher, education specialist for the Office of Early Childhood and Family Services in the Fairfax County school system, said some learn how to sound out words and appear to be reading. They aren't. "Reading is not saying words," she said. "It is understanding what is happening in the story."
According to the nonprofit group National Association for the Education of Young Children, kindergarten should be a time for children to expand their love of learning, obtain general knowledge and develop abilities to get along with others at a developmentally appropriate pace.
That doesn't mean, educators say, that teachers sit around and wait for children to be ready to learn. It means that teachers use children's strengths and abilities at a particular time to help them learn, rather than try to force them to do things at one prescribed time.
This is especially important, educators say, in today's kindergartens, because the diversity of student backgrounds is greater than ever.
At McNair Elementary, students come from 64 countries and speak 47 languages; in Debbie Ballentine's kindergarten class, four of the 20 children are from homes where English is not the primary language.
Teachers at the private Green Acres School in Rockville are adamant about cutting against the grain of the public school curriculum. At Green Acres, there is no stated goal to teach children to read; instead, the goal is to help them love to learn. Children move from block-building exercises to the indoor sand table to the outdoor playground to a table to do woodworking to the gym for games, and to numerous other activities -- all with lessons built in to promote literacy, number recognition and cooperation.
"It doesn't mean there are no academics," said Thomas John, whose son, Evan, attends Green Acres. "There's just not the academic stress."
Dalena Nguyen holds an illustration for an alliteration project.