Sunday, May 4, 2014

Whatever Happened to Kindergarten?

It's been nearly thirty years since my first days of school - and perhaps I'm looking back on this through the typical adult's nostalgic haze - but when I was in kindergarten, my biggest "trauma" was falling asleep on the school bus and missing my usual stop. I didn't have to worry about passing any tests or being "college ready." No one expected me to think seriously about "my future career;" sometimes, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, but they were looking for something cute, not something binding. Literacy education? That involved story time, nursery rhymes, and balloon letters that were assigned alliterative personality traits, like "Messy M" and "Obstinate O." Math education? Matt recalls his own kindergarten teacher's demonstrating addition by putting two groups of objects together and asking his classmates to count the total, and since I attended kindergarten only three years before in the same school system, I assume I was exposed to much the same approach.

Nowadays? Kindergarten is much more academic. Whereas my kindergarten year was dominated by play, the kids I see today are now expected to master things that I didn't cover until the first grade -- and they pass their school days under the constant supervision of "reading specialists," "math specialists," speech therapists, and school psychologists, who track each child's progress via a host of early childhood assessments. Is this a good thing? To be honest, I have my doubts.

On the one hand, I understand the desire to catch learning problems early. I have had the tragic - and frustrating - experience of working with an older student who, for one reason or another, has slipped through the cracks and has never had his legitimate learning disabilities identified. When it comes to autistic spectrum disorders, dyscalculia, and dyslexia, quicker interventions lead to better long-term outcomes. It is also true that we can no longer depend on parents to provide the supplemental academic support that once, in my coastal Connecticut town in the 1980's, was pretty commonplace. Pushing back the curriculum, I suspect, is one way educators are attempting to compensate for vast inequalities in preschool and extra-curricular preparation that arise from the catastrophic breakdown of the modern American family.

But I wonder: Are we starting to lose our sense of balance? If schools feel under pressure to cancel end-of-year kindergarten shows, and young children are coming home declaring that they hate school and are no longer interested in doodling or playing with Legos because those skills aren't practical and won't help them get into college, doesn't that indicate that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction? These are our kids we're talking about here, and as I've noted in previous posts, kids have needs beyond the pragmatic -- at least if you want them to be happy human beings and not obedient - but competent! - automatons.

What do you guys think? If you have any thoughts to share on the subject of "college-prep kindergartens" and the omnipresent anxiety that our children won't learn the skills they need if they don't start extra-early, please leave them in the comments below!

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