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‘Sweat shop’ kindergarten: ‘It’s maddening’

(2011 photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Last week I published some kindergarten schedules from school district Web sites that showed just how much kindergarten has changed in recent years as the drive to push curriculum down through the grades has gathered steam. Rather than learn through structured play, which is how experts say young children learn best, 5- and 6-year-olds are being asked to sit doing math, reading and writing for hours at a time, sometimes with no recess or a very short one. Some teachers have dispensed with snacks during half-day kindergarten because there just isn’t any time. Many kindergartners take home homework every day.

Here are some of the reactions to that post. This first one came via e-mail by a longtime educator:

Thanks for your article on what I’m calling “sweat shop” kindergartens. My great granddaughter is in one in Klein District (Houston TX).
The kids sit all day at desks doing work sheets and have home work in reading and math nightly. There is no kindergarten play area inside or outside of the room. No recess, and a brief lunch period in which the children may not talk. Phys ed is twice a week for 30 minutes.
Our little one was six in January but there are kids in the class who were barely five in September as the year started. Some fall asleep and others are behavior problems. There is little communication to parents and the parents are not permitted in the classrooms. Ironically the school is an open space school so during testing week the kindergarten children had to be very quiet to avoid distracting the test takers.
[Our great granddaughter] is conforming but when she comes home she literally runs around in circles or bounces on the backyard trampoline.
And they still call it kindergarten!

And here are some of the comments on the original post. The last one comes from an early childhood educator who was the lead writer of a 2009 report called “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” which I mentioned in my June 2 piece.

6/2/2014 6:31 PM EST
It isn’t normal for any young child, boy or girl, to have to sit in a chair most of the day.
6/2/2014 1:13 PM EST
I am a teacher and work with Kindergarten students. The biggest downfall to Kindergarten as I see it is that academics have to start on day 1 so there will be time to get through the curriculum and complete the mandated assessments. Many of the students have never been in a classroom before and need to learn how to be a member of the class before they can be ready to learn academic concepts. If a student takes the first 3 or 4 months of school to learn how to actually be in school, then they miss the 3-4 months of instruction and it’s very difficult to catch up. In my opinion, the first marking period (at least) should be focused on social skills and how to behave in school. My students get to have free choice centers once a week if they’re lucky. The day is so jam-packed and so much time has to be spent on teaching behavior and social skills. Teachers are under so much pressure that they feel they cannot take the time needed to teach any skills other than academic ones. The people making the education policy have almost never even set foot inside a classroom, but the teachers are continuosly ignored when we voice our concerns. We are told that we’re just not doing enough or doing it correctly. It is beyond frustrating when we see students struggling and we know the reasons why but pressure from above prevents us from being able to address the problems. I used to love my job but now I completely resent the people with decision-making power and how that trickles down to the children. It’s maddening.
6/2/2014 12:56 PM EST
These schedule do not accommodate active children. Since more boys are more active than girls (overall), these schedules will have an undue impact on boys relative to girls. This strikes me as illegally discriminatory and is something that the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) should focus on.
Right now, the OCR is focusing on the disparate impact of disciplinary measures taken against children of color relative to other children. Will these stringent kindergarten schedules make this issue worse? I believe so.
There are some researchers who believe that kids from some cultures have more active learning style than others. How will this impact these children? — not in a good way, I’m sure.
6/2/2014 12:03 PM EST
Where’s the MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools] schedule? The math blocks I see here [on the original post] are piddling in comparison with the 90-minute blocks in math I’ve seen subbing in MCPS.
So yes, I would absolutely believe these Kindergarten schedules. After seeing Kindergarteners regularly falling apart in their classrooms and in my music classes because they don’t have enough time to just “be” or to be 5YO, I’m not at all surprised.
Horrible horrible horrible. Utterly inhumane, utterly inappropriate developmentally, utterly UNSUPPORTED by ANY research — and yet we persist. And we do it the next several years despite Early Childhood encompassing birth thru 8YO. In a typical elementary school without pre-K, FOUR YEARS of the 6 encompassed from K-5 should fall under Early Childhood, and be correspondingly restructured to be more developmentally appropriate.
6/2/2014 10:40 AM EST
Here’s one thing I don’t get, though — students in Asia (who routinely outperform our students) are subjected to much more academic-intensive Kindergarten curriculae.
I’m all for more play in Kindergarten, I just don’t know if the link being made in this article is causative or correlative.
6/2/2014 11:07 AM EST
They outperform in test-taking. Also, by the time they are tested in higher grades, many of the lower performers have been weeded out.
Check the May 26th article on why Shanghai is dropping out of PISA.
6/2/2014 9:50 AM EST
I’m the lead author of “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” the study that Valerie cites at the beginning of this [June 2] column. That report came out in 2009, and things have gotten worse since then.
I’ve spent a lot of time recently substituting in the local schools, and I’ve become convinced that a big part of the problem is a subtle but profound kind of sexism. Almost all kindergarten teachers are women and almost all the people who are making education policy are men. The teachers are routinely ignored by those in power. For example, the committees that wrote the Common Core standards for kindergarten did not include a single kindergarten teacher or even anyone with a background in child development or early childhood education.
The more experienced kindergarten teachers who I meet are universally horrified by what is being done to children, but feel completely powerless to do anything about it. A great many of them have already quit teaching or are planning to do so soon. Many of the younger teachers don’t quite understand what the problem is because they themselves have grown up deprived of play and they have bought in to the idea that academic kindergarten is the way to go. But they are completely at a loss for what to do when the children in their classrooms collapse or melt down in frustration and despair because the demands being made of them are so far beyond their developmental capacity.
What’s the solution? I don’t know. But I urge every father of a kindergartner to take a day off from work and spend it in his child’s classroom, then go back to work and start some conversations about what is happening in our schools.
Ed Miller
Wellfleet, Mass.