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Kindergarten the new first grade? It’s actually worse than that.

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.

[Report debunks ‘earlier is better’ academic instruction for young kids]

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
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[].