BROOKHAVEN, Miss.— It was only 10:30 a.m. on a late spring day at Enterprise Attendance Center, and Landon Delcambre had already learned how to make estimates while watching six students guess the number of buttons in a jar. He had listened to a weather report from two students. And in what was perhaps the highlight of lesson-filled day, he’d counted to 100 with the help of a YouTube video featuring a “counting superhero.”
Landon, six, is among the Mississippi kindergarten students who are learning new, more challenging academic standards such as counting to 100 by ones and tens. For many years, they only needed to count to 20 before moving on to first grade.
He doesn’t find the new standard too hard. “I already knowed how to count to 100,” Landon said calmly, sitting back at his desk after the video. “I didn’t learn it. I just knew for years.”
Yet Landon’s confidence isn’t shared by some educators and experts who argue the new standards are too hard for students just starting school, even though it appears they are here to stay. Against a swirl of protest, Gov. Phil Bryant in April vetoed a bill that would have forced the state to re-examine Common Core Standards adopted five years ago for all grades.
Now called the Mississippi College-and-Career Readiness Standards, the standards are particularly challenging in the early grades like kindergarten, where students are expected to learn skills previously expected from 7- or 8-year-olds.
Nationally, more than 40 states have adopted or adapted Common Core, with ensuing questions about how well they were suited for each K-12 grade. However, the changes to kindergarten have garnered special outrage. While some supporters say young learners are fully capable of mastering these new standards, early childhood experts insist some standards are too tough and will further pull kindergarteners away from traditional, play-based learning.
Often it’s parents who are flummoxed by the changes to what used to be a softer, more relaxed introduction to school.
“I was just blown away that they wanted a kindergartener to know that much,” said Mississippi parent, Kathy Glover, referring to noticeable instructional changes for her second child.
“I was thinking, ‘Does second grade now start in kindergarten?’” she said.
Message to parents: ‘Days of naps and unstructured play are long gone!’
In Mississippi, where a 2013 survey of teachers found that 40 percent of students in the state arrive unprepared for kindergarten, the new standards are truly daunting. Teachers surveyed said that some students were unable to hold crayons or identify colors. A 2014 state reading exam found that about 65 percent of Mississippi’s kindergarten students did not meet the benchmark score for early literacy skills, which includes being able to distinguish between lower and upper case letters.
When the state adopted the Common Core standards, it was in the hopes that they would “put students on a level playing field regardless of their ZIP code,” according to the state education website. But like the majority of states, kindergarten attendance is optional in Mississippi, and the state’s fledging pre-K program and piecemeal private options means more than half of 3- and 4- year-olds did not attend preschool programs between 2011 and 2013.
That has fueled concerns that with new, more challenging goals, students who did not attend preschool or kindergarten could enter school even further behind than they would have in previous years.
Glover’s children attend school in Lowndes County, and she remembers a strong emphasis on phonics and handwriting when her oldest child was in kindergarten. The new standards seemed to be a huge jump up in rigor. She said she was stunned when nearly halfway through the school year, her 6-year-old daughter brought home a handout from elementary school that outlined what was expected by the end of the year.
The top of the sheet put it clearly: “One thing is for sure, kindergarten is not what it used to be! The days of naps and unstructured play are long gone!”
Listed in a table below were more than 40 bullet points that laid out what Glover’s daughter was expected to master, like how to use singular and plural nouns correctly.
At times, Glover said, her daughter brought work home with instructions that seemed roundabout. “There were times she said ‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Glover said. “My husband and I would read them and say ‘We don’t understand either.’”
Jeffrey Okamoto, a pediatrician and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health, said, developmentally, it’s fine to introduce academic concepts to 5- and 6-year-olds, “They’re definitely ready for direct instruction”. But schools shouldn’t expect all kids to master a set of standards.
“Many kids are clustered around the average, and there’s a whole number of kids who are more advanced and kids who are a little more behind,” Okamoto said. “That’s normal.”
Still, he said it’s important to have balance in school. “We may be losing some things in the rush to shove a lot of material in,” said Okamoto of young learners. “We want them to be academically challenged, but we also want them to be physically challenged and continue to be healthy.”
Uproar over reading
Joan Almon, co-founder of Alliance for Childhood, teamed up with Defending the Early Years (DEY), a nonprofit early childhood advocacy group, to produce a report this year on reading instruction in kindergarten, with particular focus on the standard that says kindergarteners will read ‘emergent-level texts’, by the time they leave kindergarten. These standards are “the most inappropriate because many children are just not developmentally ready to read,” Almon said.
“If you want reading to be an organic process for children, it takes some time,” she added. “You don’t want to do such heavy duty instruction as is going on in kindergarten. You’ll stress children. You’ll burn them out.”
Supporters of the new standards agree they are more challenging than what many states had in place, but they disagree that the standards are inappropriate. David Liben is a reading and language arts senior content specialist at Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit founded by lead writers of the standards. He said the kindergarten standards don’t actually say that every child must learn to read.
In fact, the kindergarten reading standards include a “qualifying statement,” Liben said, which “recognizes the idea that at this younger age, some students might not be able to master these standards.”
A brief released in May by Liben and co-author Silas Kulkarni attempts to clarify the demands of the standards. It specifically addresses the standard that says kindergarteners should be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding,” which Common Core defines as texts with short sentences and basic words like ‘the,’ ‘of,’ and ‘you’. This standard is often read “out of context,” the authors explain. Or people who read the standard don’t understand what “emergent-reader” texts means. Indeed, the expectation that all students read by the end of kindergarten “would be extremely unrealistic for kindergarten,” the authors conclude.
But the DEY report found some teachers feel they’re under pressure to meet these “unrealistic reading goals” created by the standards. The report goes on to say teachers are relying more on assessments, worksheets, and drills to teach students.
“We see increased stress in children, teachers and families,” the report says. “We foresee lasting effects on children’s health and wellbeing from both the increased stress to meet unrealistic goals, and the loss of skills and capacities that are no longer developed in kindergarten.”
David Coleman, one of the lead writers of the Common Core standards and one of the founders of the nonprofit Student Achievement Partners, said in a written response to The Hechinger Report that veteran early elementary teachers and early childhood experts read and gave input on drafts of the standards. “This led to concrete changes in the final version,” Coleman wrote, including the movement of some proposed kindergarten concepts up to older grades.
Although the math standards are a jump for Mississippi and many other states compared to previous years, some states were already ramping up the math standards before Common Core, Coleman added.
“While it is true that many of the oldest state standards only asked kindergarten students to count to 20,” Coleman wrote, “more recent standards went higher, to ‘at least 20’ or ‘at least 31’ ‘or up to 100.’”
Texas and Michigan had long expected kindergarteners to count to 100 by ones before moving to first grade, according to a 2008 report by the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum at the University of Missouri. But other states varied greatly in their expectations, with Ohio expecting students to count forward and backward on a number line between zero and 10, and Arizona expected students to count aloud, forward to 20 or backward from 10.
But Coleman argued that even as states raised standards they “didn’t match the research, evidence and expertise that went into the Common Core… they are a big improvement over the kindergarten standards we had before.”
But what about play?
Controversy over kindergarten is nothing new. For years, kindergarten has been accused of becoming “too academic,” often thought to be a result of standardized testing pressure trickling down to early elementary classrooms.
The trend is well documented, with blame placed on various education reforms, testing, or the new standards. Even before Common Core was widely adopted, a 2010 Chicago Tribune article declared “Kindergarten: It’s the new first grade.” A 2013 article by the New York Post claimed “Playtime’s over, kindergarteners.” And in a 2014 column in the Washington Post, early learning writer, Laurie Levy wrote about vanishing kindergarten playtime. “Once a time for socialization and learning through play, school reformers have turned it into an academic exercise that, in some classrooms, leaves little or no time for play, recess or even snack for children as young as 5-years-old.”
Supporters of the standards say Common Core and play aren’t mutually exclusive, and individual teachers can choose to keep play in or out of the classroom. “There’s no reason that there can’t be play in the Common Core,” said Liben. “Play is not a goal, play is a technique … You play to learn about science, you play to learn about letters, you play to learn about social interactions and all kinds of things. It’s a means to an end.”
In Landon’s classroom, play is integrated into lessons or used to teach skills like counting. His teacher, Lynn Chapman, said that before Common Core, her kindergarteners spent 15 to 20 minutes a day playing with a plastic kitchen that sits in the corner, as well as other toys and blocks that would ideally develop their imagination and teach social and emotional skills. Now, she said they have time once a week for free play.
It isn’t that Common Core forbids play, Chapman said, but with such in-depth standards and so much to accomplish in a year, there isn’t time. She thinks play is important, and incorporates it in various lessons. But there are other key rituals of kindergarten that she wants to squeeze in, like “calendar time” each day to go over the date and weather, as well as lessons on topics like money, which were present in Mississippi’s old standards but not in Common Core.
“Common Core’s got a lot of good things,” Chapman said. “Yet, there are things that have been left out and things that are a little more advanced.”
Each day, students in her class rotate through a variety of activities, both traditional and more academic, including whole group time on a carpet, learning songs and dancing, and completing problems out of a workbook. Chapman works with students in small groups each day, a classic staple of kindergarten classrooms, to make sure students get individual attention.
On a recent spring morning, Chapman circulated the room, quickly checking to make sure each student was on the right page of their workbook. She instructed them to look at a picture of two penguins.
“Which penguin is shorter?” she asked.
“A long time ago, I think ‘Happy Feet Two’ was out on my TV,” one student offered. At another table, two girls quickly pointed to the shorter penguin.
On one side of the room, 5-year-old Benjamin was stuck. But compared to the other things he’s learned this year, this lesson isn’t hard. “The hardest thing is how to make [my dog] stop scratching people,” he said.
Also, writing sentences. “It was hard,” he said.