Increased Academic Rigor in Kindergarten Questioned

By Crawford, Amy | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, September 2, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Increased Academic Rigor in Kindergarten Questioned

Crawford, Amy, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

It was the seventh day of school at Metzgar Elementary, and Marian Arndt's afternoon kindergarten students were writing their first sentences.

"I LIKE IDWLD," one girl printed in large block letters, referring to the Ligonier theme park.

Another girl, trying to write "I like soccer," needed help with her letter sounds.

"Soccer begins with..." coached teacher Anthony Barbato, who was helping Arndt with the writing lesson.

"C!" the child guessed.

"It could be a 'C,' but it's like a snake," Barbato said, exaggerating the sibilant sound.

"S!" she shouted, and began to draw the letter in her journal.

Their spelling was not perfect, but the 5-year-olds were beginning to sound out words and write legible letters. By the end of the year, Arndt said, most of the children will be reading books with multiple sentences on a page.

"It's amazing," said Arndt, who has taught kindergarten for 35 years at the Salem school. "The kindergarten of olden days was mostly nap time and playing with toys. We started to do writing in kindergarten maybe six years ago, and I thought, 'My kids can't do this!' But we have high expectations now, and I think that's a good thing."

Previous generations of kindergarteners came to school to learn their ABCs and the numbers one through 10. But according to standards set in 2006 by the state Department of Education, today's kindergarteners should learn to read and write complete sentences and count to 100 by ones and tens.

Some educators say kindergarten has become the new first grade.

"It's kind of like they've brought everything down a year," said Don Alexander, who teaches kindergarten at Carnegie Elementary School in the Carlynton School District. "Even within the last couple years, more emphasis has been placed on reading and math."

"Children are capable of more than we had thought," said Jerlean Daniel, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children and a former University of Pittsburgh professor. "We've learned a lot over the past 10 years from brain research, from scholars looking at mathematics and the progression of early literacy."

But Daniel and other advocates worry that schools might be expecting too much of kindergarteners.

"I think the age of accountability has caused lots of changes, unfortunately, with push-down from the upper grades," Daniel said, referring to standardized testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act, the 2002 federal law that was designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement. In Pennsylvania, testing begins in the third grade, and the state's requirements for kindergarten are geared toward getting children on track to pass.

This year, the Maryland-based nonprofit Alliance for Childhood published a report, "Crisis in the Kindergarten," that called for more playtime and fewer academic lessons.

"Play-oriented kindergartens, when they're done well, actually do a better job of creating the foundations of literacy," said Sharna Olfman, a Point Park University psychology professor and a member of the organization's advisory board. "When children engage in make- believe play, they're creating a story. They're engaging with each other in language skills."

The impact of more academic rigor in kindergarten is not yet well- researched. Although test scores in Pennsylvania and other states have gone up in the years since kindergarten became more academic, critics say there have been negative psychological effects.

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