Last week, Maryland's board of education voted to raise the age at which children can be admitted to kindergarten. The change is necessary, according to Maryland's State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, in part because of the increased academic focus in today's kindergartens. But will changing the cutoff date for kindergarten enrollment solve the problems caused by the growing academic focus of today's kindergartens? I don't think so.
Last week, Maryland's board of education voted to increase the age at which children can be admitted to public kindergarten. Under the new regulations, children in the state must turn five by September 1 -- rather than by the previous date of December 31. The vote brings Maryland into line with most other states, which already have established higher minimum age requirements for kindergarten enrollment.
The change is necessary, according to Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, in part because of the increased academic focus in today's kindergartens. "There is much more problem solving, much more interaction with books, teaching of early reading skills, pre-writing, and even some early writing skills that didn't used to occur until first grade," she said in a recent Washington Post interview.
As a former kindergarten teacher, I applaud Maryland's action. Any adult who has spent any time at all in a kindergarten classroom knows that those kids who enter kindergarten before their fifth birthday stick out like a sucked thumb. Chronologically, they may be only a few months younger than their classmates. Developmentally, the gap is much wider. That was true 30 years ago when the majority of kids did not attend preschool, and it's true today when 85 percent of kids have some preschool experience.
If it's unreasonable to establish expectations based on what the oldest children can do, it is absolutely deplorable to establish expectations for kindergarten students that are beyond the reach of the average five-year-old. Do you doubt that that's what we're doing? Take a look at a few of the kindergarten curriculums that I randomly pulled off the Web, and compare some of the required skills with the average Developmental Milestones by the End of 5 Years as determined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
The Kindergarten Content Summary for Lombard (Illinois) Elementary School District 44 says that kindergarten students will learn to "identify story elements: plot, setting, characters." The AAP says that five-year-olds should "understand that stories have a beginning, middle, and end."
The kindergarten curriculum of the Department of Defense Education Activity says that kindergarten students in military schools will "begin to form letters with control over size or shape." The AAP says five-year-olds will "enjoy tracing or copying letters" and "may" have enough fine motor control to "tie their shoes."
The Cotati-Rohneet Park Unified School District in Rohnert Park, California, kindergarten curriculum requires kindergarten students to "count with one-to-one correspondence to 30" and "comprehend relationships between numbers to 30." The AAP says that average five-year-olds are developmentally able to "count up to 10 objects."
The kindergarten curriculum expectations in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that kindergarten students are expected to learn to "recognize and name upper and lower case letters of the alphabet." The average five-year-old, says the AAP, can learn to "identify some letters of the alphabet and a few numbers."
What are we thinking? Have schools totally lost sight of the fact that children develop in a series of relatively predictable, age-related stages, and that, no matter how bright the child, how extensive the preschool experience, or how able the teacher, some skills are simply beyond the developmental ability of most five-year-olds? Or have besieged educators simply been coerced by anxious parents and political pressure into ignoring what they know and going with the accountability flow?
Granted, the kindergarten curriculum, like every other aspect of education, must change with the times. Television, technology, and the proliferation of day care and preschool have moved us well beyond the days when most kindergarteners needed to be taught primary colors or basic cooperation. That doesn't mean, however, that today's five-year-olds are any more able to control a pencil or analyze a plot than their parents were at that age.
It means that, as educators, we now have the opportunity to expand -- not extend -- the kindergarten curriculum, and to expose our children to more of what they're capable of learning rather than to more learning than they're capable of absorbing. It means that we have the opportunity to develop a curriculum that's more creative and more inclusive, not one that's more academic.
As educators, we tend to have a progress-oriented mindset. We see learning in terms of a continuum, one that moves in a straight line from one skill to another more difficult related skill. We have been taught to look at where children are and then to move them forward from that point. We have not been prepared for a crop of capable kids who simply are not yet developmentally ready to move on; so we do what we have always done. Ready or not -- and most are not -- we move them forward.
The kids, of course, are suffering for it. "To impose a strict structure on children in kindergarten totally violates what we know about early childhood development," says David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University. Even worse, Elkind notes, "children feel stupid when they are asked to do something that they are developmentally unable to do."
In trying to maximize our children's progress, we are ignoring the importance of their developmental limitations -- and we may be jeopardizing their future as well. We need to take a closer look, not simply at the age at which children enter kindergarten or at the experience they bring with them, but also at the developmental stage at which they enter; and then we need to develop a curriculum that meets those needs.
As a society, we are wildly inconsistent about what we want for our kids. Half the time, we're teaching them to read before they're out of diapers and sending them to school before they have the manual dexterity to hold a pencil. The rest of the time we're lamenting the fact that they grow up too fast -- and wondering why.