FILE: Kindergarteners Noah Bellamy, L, and Morgan Creek read together during their kindergarten class library visit at Peabody Elementary School on Wednesday, February 25, 2015, in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

There is a newly published study out of the University of Virginia titled, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” (based on a 2014 working paper), which finds, not surprisingly, that it is. This work should not be confused with the the 2009 study “Crisis in the Kindergarten” from the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood, which said:

Kindergartners are now under great pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first grade.

Nor should this be confused with a 2004 story that I wrote for The Washington Post that said:

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

Yes, we’ve been asking if kindergarten is the new first grade — and declaring that it is — for well over a decade.  It has been years now that academics came to dominate kindergarten as the importance of standardized tests grew in the No Child Left Behind era, and play-based learning receded.

The new study — by Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem of the University of Virginia, and published Jan. 7 by AERA Open, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association — says there  has been until now “surprisingly little empirical evidence about the extent to which kindergarten classrooms have changed over time.” The researchers compared kindergarten and first-grade classrooms between 1998 and 2010 and found that kindergarten classes had become increasingly like first grade.

But anybody following education and visiting classrooms has seen the evidence up close and personal. Five- and 6-year-old kids now spend hours in their seats doing academic work, often with little or  no recess or physical education, or  arts, music and science.  These kids are tested ad nauseam and expected to be able to do things by the time they leave kindergarten that some, perhaps even many, are not developmentally prepared to do.

This is not to suggest that kindergartners shouldn’t be learning a lot, and that they can’t do some academic work. As the National Association for the Education of Young Children said in 2014 in comments about the working paper by Bassok et. al:

Time spent on academic content, and even time spent on increasingly challenging academic content should not automatically be seen as a threat to kindergarten. Children learn from birth, so kindergarten should provide children with opportunities and supports appropriate for where they are. Early childhood education has always embraced the (academic and social and emotional) content that young children need to learn. Kindergartners (and all young children!) can learn academic content that is appropriate to where they are developmentally.

A 2015  report, “Lively Minds: Distinctions Between Academic Versus Intellectual Goals for Young Children,” offered a new way to look at what is appropriate in early childhood education. The report, by Lilian G. Katz, professor emeritus of early childhood education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and past president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said in part:

The main argument presented here is that the traditional debates inthe field about whether to emphasize so-called free play or formal beginning academic instruction are not the only two options for the early childhood curriculum. Certainly some proportions of time can be given to both of those kinds of curriculum components. But in the early years, another major component of education – (indeed for all age groups) must be to provide a wide range of experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts that will provoke, stimulate, and support children’s innate intellectual dispositions.
 The problem is that such experiences, opportunities, resources and contexts are not provided to many if not most kindergartners, as well as to young children in the early grades of elementary school. Furthermore, academic pressures now familiar to kindergartners have been increasingly pushed down onto preschoolers, putting 4-year-olds in the position of going to school in the same atmosphere as older children.
As for kindergarten, it could be argued that in some ways, it is the new third grade. How? It used to be that kids were given time to academically grow at their own speed without being declared failures by first and certainly second grade if they couldn’t read. Kids intellectually develop at different rates, and one of the most damaging aspects of the “earlier is not only better but necessary” philosophy is that this natural process is no longer respected.
A report released in 2015 titled “Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose” showed that there is no evidence to support a widespread belief in the United States that children must read in prekindergarten or kindergarten to become strong readers and achieve academic success. And Katz wrote in her “Lively Minds” report that “earlier is better” is not supported in neurological research. What the research does suggest, she wrote, is that “preschool programs are best when they focus on social, emotional and intellectual goals rather than narrow academic goals” and provide “early experiences that provoke self-regulation, initiative and …sustained synchronous interaction in which the child is interactive with others in some continuous process, rather than a mere passive recipient of isolated bits of information for stimulation.”
It was long said that kids learn to read through third grade, at which point they start to read to learn; research has shown that to be a myth, as many kids do both — learn to read and read to learn read to learn and learn to read —  when they are very young. But kids no longer have time to develop in their own time or in the ways that they learn best. Thus, calling kindergarten — or even preschool — the new first grade is minimizing the real problem.

Here’s the “snapshow” of the study titled Is Kindergarten the New First Grade”:

 

Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?
Study: “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?”
Authors: Daphna Bassok (University of Virginia), Scott Latham (University of Virginia), Anna Rorem (University of Virginia)
Published online January 7, 2016, in the AERA peer-reviewed journal AERA Open

  • In recent years, parents and teachers have become increasingly concerned about changes in kindergarten classes across the country, leading many to wonder if kindergarten has become the new first grade. Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.
  • Researchers from the University of Virginia tackled this question by comparing kindergarten and first-grade classrooms between 1998 and 2010. They found that over a 12-year period, kindergarten classes have become increasingly like first grade.
  • Researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study in 1998 and 2011 to compare kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010. The sample included 2,500 public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2,700 in 2010. Whenever possible, responses from kindergarten teachers in 2010 were also compared to those of first-grade teachers in 1999.
  • The authors hypothesized that kindergarten classrooms in 2010 would be more focused on literacy and math than those in 1997, because these subjects were specifically assessed by No Child Left Behind.
  • Based on the data they examined, the authors found that kindergarten teachers in 2010 had much higher expectations of their students than teachers in 1998 and their classrooms had become more similar to first-grade classes from the ’90s.
  • Specifically, teachers in 2010 were much more likely to believe academic instruction should begin before kindergarten; this included a 33-percent increase in the number of teachers who believed students should know the alphabet and how to use a pencil before beginning kindergarten.
  • Teachers in 2010 were also significantly more likely to think students should leave kindergarten knowing how to read. In 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed their students should learn to read in kindergarten, while that figure jumped to 80 percent in 2010.
  • As anticipated, the amount of time spent on reading and math instruction increased, particularly on skills that in 1998 were considered too advanced for kindergarten.
  • In addition, researchers found that while academic instruction increased, time spent teaching the arts substantially decreased. Between 1998 and 2010, the number of teachers reporting daily music instruction decreased by 18 percentage points, and daily art instruction decreased by 16 percentage points. In a similar vein, the number of teachers who spent at least one hour per day on child-selected activities dropped by 14 percentage points and the likelihood that classrooms had discovery or play areas such as a sand table, science area, or art area, fell by over 20 percentage points.
  • Teaching strategies also underwent significant shifts between 1998 and 2010, with children twice as likely to be taught reading and math using textbooks in the later period. Kindergarten teachers were also about 15 percentage points more likely to report daily use of math and reading workbooks.
  • Teachers in 2010 were 22 percentage points more likely to indicate that evaluating students in relation to local and state standards was very important or essential. Notably, in 1998, teachers were not asked how frequently they used standardized tests to assess student progress, while teachers in 2010 were. Twenty-nine percent of kindergarten teachers in 2010 indicated they assessed their students with standardized tests at least once a month.
  • Data also revealed that these findings were similar across the country but were more pronounced at schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority students, particularly with respect to teacher expectations and didactic instruction.
  • “Young children’s first experiences in school are quite different today than they were in the late nineties,” said study co-author Daphna Bassok. “These changes likely have important implications for children’s learning trajectories.”
  • “We were surprised to see just how drastic the changes have been over a short period of time,” added Bassok. “We expected to see changes on some of these dimensions but not nearly so systematically and not nearly of this magnitude.“

Periodically, AERA will send out a brief overview, or snapshot, of a recent study that has been published in one of its peer-reviewed journals. AERA’s “Study Snapshots” provide a high-level glimpse into new education research.

To see the full study, click HERE[aeramail.org].