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The Trouble With Kindergarten

The joys of childhood take a backseat to “preparation for college and career.”

An elementary school in Elwood, New York infuriated parents and inspired an online petition this week when it cancelled an end-of-year kindergarten show in order to prepare its six-year-olds for “college and career.” Snatching an annual performance rite from Kindergarteners to get them up to snuff academically may seem like a mockery of the Common Core curriculum worthy of the Onion, but it’s no joke. Here is the letter (click on it to expand), signed by interim principal Ellen Best-Laimit and the school’s four kindergarten teachers:

In response to parents’ complaints, Superintendent Peter Scordo released a statement digging in his heels:

Our educators believe that the traditional kindergarten performance requires multiple days away from classroom work for preparation and execution, and together with the lost instructional time this year due to poor weather, is not the best use of the limited time we have with our youngest learners.

So there you have it. In lieu of performing in the school play before delighted audiences on May 14 and 15developing their imaginations, their creative souls and their confidence as public speakersthe six-year-olds of Elwood will be doing their part to make sure thirteen years down the line they ready for Freshman Comp. Ah, the joys of childhood in the age of the Common Core.

Thankfully, not all is rotten in the kindergarten classroom. My two children have had significantly better experiences in their Brooklyn public schools, with lots of arts enrichment and, yes, holiday and end-of-year performances (not to mention celebratory flash mobs). But kindergarten standards are much more academic than they once were, and teacher evaluations hinge on observable data. A friend tells me of a classroom where the kids were asked to fill out a log before choice time (“I’m going to play fireman”; “I’m going to build a house with blocks”) to ensure the event generated assessable data points. All this and more prompted our elder daughter’s wonderful teacher to abandon K for pre-K a few years ago.

But even many pre-kindergarten classrooms in New York, Elena Nitecki and Mi-Hyun Chung write, crowd out play and choice-based learning because teachers feel it is their duty to “get through the content.” The travesty is that play is actually the most effective medium in which young children acquire literacy skills.  

This troubling trend of pushing pre-kindergarten children beyond what is developmentally appropriate to prepare them for kindergarten is in direct contrast to what kindergarten is really meant to bea “child’s garden,” as Froebel (1899) originally conceived. The PKCC [Pre-Kindergarten Common Core as implemented in New York State] can be balanced with developmentally appropriate expectations for emergent literacy, including play, if the standards are approached as expectations that be integrated within a child- centered, play-based curriculum. Teachers of young children should value the hallmark of the early childhood years—play, a powerful vehicle to refine social, cognitive, physical, and language skills. To balance the PKCC with play, teachers should build on children’s interests and existing pre-literacy skills and knowledge in a meaningful way through play. After all, literacy is best developed within the context of a child’s natural language of play.

This does not mean that kindergarten should be an everything-goes romper room. As one kindergarten teacher in Brooklyn told me, “learning should happen with a balance of ‘academic’ subjects, play (structured and unstructured), exposure to the arts, and time for socialization. It is a very important year in terms of setting up the foundations for success in school in both the academic aspect and especially in the social aspect.” It’s the balance this teacher speaks ofa basic sense of proportion in pondering what young children should be engaged inthat seems so out of whack in the Long Island school’s decision to, in effect, cancel Christmas.

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