Surviving Kindergarten

They’re making Venn diagrams, writing poetry journals and doing homework. Being 5 just isn’t what it used to be.



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My son emerged from school glassy-eyed and wired, looking like my old college roommate after a coffee-fueled all-nighter. Barely glancing in my direction, he chucked his backpack and tore off after a buddy. He knew that even though he had just completed six hours of work, he didn’t have much time to let loose. This Thursday, like every other weeknight, there was still homework that needed to be completed before he could hit the pillow.

Such is the life of a kindergartner.

What used to be a kind of extended playdate centering on the arrival of chocolate milk is now a hard-core schedule of reading, math, science and social studies. The Bridge to Excellence in Public Schools Act of 2002 mandated that all Maryland schools provide full-day kindergarten for students by the start of 2007. That mandate took effect in Montgomery County with the 2006 school year. Today, kindergartners in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) attend school from roughly 8:50 a.m. to 3:05 p.m.

They receive instruction in phonics, recognizing two- and three-dimensional shapes and determining the value of coin sets. They create pictographs and poetry journals. They do Venn diagrams and oral presentations. Even physical education is structured, with kids learning to identify activities that increase the heart rate. And afterward? There’s homework.

Many are meeting the challenge and making impressive strides. But others struggle, as my son did, leaving parents to wonder: Is this academic rigor really necessary at such a young age?

“I would have failed this miserably [when I was in kindergarten],” a parent comments one morning in March after reviewing the type of text her child would be expected to read by the end of kindergarten. Three other parents nod. I’m sitting in Barbara Leister’s office at Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda. My son is 8 now, his kindergarten year well behind him. But my daughter is starting her elementary career here this fall.

Leister, who lives in Silver Spring, has been a principal for 29 years. And each year she offers parents of upcoming kindergartners an opportunity to meet, ask questions and observe a class. Leister attempts to ease anxieties by noting that although kindergarten is more academic these days, kindergartners are not left to figure things out on their own. Reading is like learning to walk, she notes: Some will get there later than others, but they will get there. “Look, you can all read and write,” she says.

Kindergartners in Montgomery County are expected to read a “level four” text by the end of the school year. That means three- and four-word sentences, such as: “Big Chimp wakes up.” They also should be able to read and write at least 25 frequently used “sight” words, like “my,” “the” and “can.”

The goal, however, is to go higher. MCPS offers Seven Keys to College Readiness, touted as “a pathway identified by Montgomery County Public Schools that will increase the likelihood of students being ready for college and earning a degree.” The first key means a kindergartner should read a “level six” text by the end of the year. At this level, the count is eight- or 10-word sentences, such as: “The dog runs up the hill and into the trees, too.”

For parents, the seven keys unlock even more kindergarten jitters. “I thought, God, this is so stressful that we’re talking about college already,” says Nancy Rhodes, whose daughter attends Wood Acres Elementary School in Bethesda. “I mean, these kids were just born.”

Math also is taught at a higher level than parents may recall from their own kindergarten experience. Teachers cover computation, geometry, statistics, patterns and probability, according to Ebony Langford-Brown, director of elementary instruction and achievement for MCPS. “We have increased expectations for [kindergartners’] reading, their writing and their mathematics knowledge,” she says, “but we’re finding that now that we’re asking them to do it, they can.”

Test scores, she says, back her up. By the end of the 2008-2009 school year, 91 percent of kindergartners were able to read a level four text, and 73 percent could read a level six. That’s compared with 81 percent and 56 percent respectively at the end of the 2005-2006 school year, before MCPS instituted all-day kindergarten.

For one kindergarten project, my son, Trey, researched Italy in the school library, made a poster and gave an oral report—all before he could tie his shoes.

Mastering such complicated subjects can be a big confidence boost for some kids. Jenny Aron’s son attends Bethesda’s Bradley Hills Elementary School and “he walks in like he owns the place,” she says. A former teacher, Aron read to her son when he was an infant. As he got older, she practiced phonics and went over high-frequency sight words with him. She reviewed the kindergarten curriculum, which is available online, and prepped her son beforehand.

“What they’re learning in Montgomery County is what I taught to my second-grade classroom in the District [in 1997],” she says.

But even as some kindergartners are reading Magic Tree House chapter books, others have difficulty sounding out the simplest of words. “Already I have fears about keeping up with the Joneses,” says Ruth Catan of Bethesda, whose twins attend Bradley Hills with Aron’s son. The girls struggle with reading, and Catan worries about the effects on their self-esteem. “We’ve been going to the library for years. They love books,” she says, “but that didn’t influence anything.”

On a weekday in spring, teacher Julie Hagan takes kindergartners from one lesson to the next at Wyngate. They make clocks, participate in reading groups, fill in Venn diagrams that compare and contrast two versions of a fairy tale. Most listen intently, quickly hitting the carpet when prompted with “magic 5,” which reminds them that they must sit “criss-cross applesauce,” keep their hands in their laps, eyes on the teacher, ears listening and mouths quiet to absorb what she says. One boy, however, seems distracted, and two classmates lean over at one point to ask why he’s taking so long to complete a reading project. The boy looks deflated.

“When they don’t know as many letters or sight words as their peers, they can tell,” Hagan, a Bethesda resident, says later, “and it really does take a toll. I try to let them know that no matter where they are when they come in, they are intelligent and they’re learning and we’ll get them to where they need to go.”

Melissa Landa, a visiting assistant professor of language arts and literacy at the University of Maryland in College Park, worries, however, that something is getting lost in the equation. Landa, who lives in Rockville, was an elementary school teacher in Montgomery County for 18 years and taught kindergarten in Kensington.

“For some kids, [the reading expectations] will be no problem, they’re going to do it anyway,” Landa says. “For other kids, they may learn to read because that’s the focus of everything they’re doing and the teachers have all this pressure to make sure these kids learn to read. But the question is, at what expense?”

She worries that in working to meet reading expectations, kindergartners miss out on things more valuable to a 5-year-old’s development, including old-fashioned play, which aids language skills and helps kids learn how to negotiate and problem solve.

Furthermore, she says, “There’s no research that says that kids who don’t learn to read in kindergarten will be behind.”

MCPS spokesperson Kate Harrison notes that the Seven Keys to College Readiness was based on extensive research suggesting students reading at accelerated levels in kindergarten will be prepared for rigorous secondary and post-secondary education.

Joan Almon, who taught kindergarten for 20 years, questions the long-term benefits. Almon is executive director of the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group based in College Park. She points to the 2009 reading assessment from the National Assessment of Educational Progress—sometimes called the Nation’s Report Card. The test was given to about 179,000 fourth-graders around the country and shows average reading scores have increased a mere four points on a 500-point scale since 1992. Maryland students fared somewhat better with a 15-point increase.

Almon doesn’t think that increase merits the large amount of time now devoted to literacy in kindergarten. Instead, reading expectations should be delayed until first grade, when, she says, almost all kids are developmentally ready to meet them.

What’s more, the increased demands tend to discriminate against young boys, Almon says. “I’m not saying it’s great for girls, but all this sedentary education really goes against the grain for boys,” she says. “They’re considered to be less mature than girls at that point, and they tend to be much more active in their learning style.”

Almon also worries about the kindergartners who excel. “We hear a lot from third- and fourth-grade teachers about children being burned out,” she says.

Greg Stevens, president of the Maryland Association for the Education of Young Children, says he’s not opposed to boosting academics as long as it’s balanced with meeting the emotional and physical needs of the kindergartner. He sees signs that the balance is off in Montgomery County. “There is less and less play and outdoor time,” says Stevens, a Germantown resident. “[With all the instructional minute recommendations], I think it’s becoming harder for Montgomery school systems to create that balance.”

Signs the balance was off became apparent to Sherifa Fahmy when her son started at Brooke Grove Elementary School in Olney three years ago. “I’ll never forget the first weeks when Malec got off the bus,” says Fahmy, a speech-language pathologist living in Olney. “His hair was a wreck, he had dark circles. He was exhausted, and then he had homework. It was too much.”

Now 8, Malec excels in school, but in kindergarten, he mistakenly was placed in English for Speakers of Other Languages classes despite the fact he and his family were born and raised in the United States. “He got 6 out of 6 on the speaking and 4 out of 6 on the listening portion [of a language test], and they assumed [his lower listening score] must be a foreign language issue rather than he’s a tired 5-year-old in the afternoon of kindergarten,” his mother says.

So how exactly are kindergartners spending their day? During their six hours in school, they generally have a 30-minute lunch and one 25- to 35-minute recess. The remaining hours are filled with reading instruction (about 450 minutes a week), writing (about 150 minutes a week), math (about 300 minutes a week) and science and social studies (about 125 minutes a week each). Art, music and physical education are generally once a week, lasting 35 to 50 minutes.

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