This summer, millions of excited 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds will be getting ready for their first real year of school. But some of them may be in for a wake-up call when that first bell rings.
If you have young kids in school, or talk with teachers of young children, you've likely heard the refrain — that something's changed in the early grades. Schools seem to be expecting more of their youngest students academically, while giving them less time to spend in self-directed and creative play.
A big new study provides the first national, empirical data to back up the anecdotes. University of Virginia researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem analyzed the U.S. Department of Education's Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which includes a nationally representative annual sample of roughly 2,500 teachers of kindergarten and first grade who answer detailed questions. Their answers can tell us a lot about what they believe and expect of their students and what they actually do in their classrooms.
The authors chose to compare teachers' responses from two years, 1998 and 2010. Why 1998? Because the federal No Child Left Behind law hadn't yet changed the school landscape with its annual tests and emphasis on the achievement gap.
With the caveat that this is a sample, not a comprehensive survey, here's what they found. Among the differences:
Bassok was surprised by her results. "We went into the study seeing a lot of anecdotal evidence" about the ratcheting up of expectations in kindergarten, she says. "I thought part of this was a nostalgia for what we imagined kindergarten may have been. It's pretty amazing to me that, over a 12-year period, we see such drastic changes in teachers reporting what they expect and how they spend their time."
But what do these findings mean? And are they inherently bad?
Sonja Santelises, vice president for K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, which focuses on efforts to reduce the achievement gap, says rising expectations are a good thing, though "rigid instruction" is not.
"The report clearly raises important questions about how we are teaching our youngest learners," Santelises says. "But we need to be careful that we're not conflating the challenge of high-quality, engaging instruction and the actual target of learning to read."
Bassok agrees. "The changes that seem potentially troubling are more around how kids are learning, not what kids should be learning," she says. "There are classrooms that are very hands-on and allow kids to explore and also have terrific focus on math and are language-rich. Those things don't need to be at odds at all."
It's easy to make this a story about teachers' responses to high-stakes testing. Especially when you consider that, for every one of these indicators, the trend was even stronger in high-poverty classrooms and in schools with more nonwhite children — schools that no doubt felt extra accountability pressure under NCLB.
However, the authors caution that there are lots of factors at play here. Since 1998, the number of children attending public preschool has jumped dramatically. There's been an even bigger leap in students attending full-day versus half-day kindergarten, which gives teachers more time to cover every subject. Parents also appear to be spending more time reading to kids and otherwise introducing language and math. In short, it's possible teachers' academic expectations have risen, at least in part, because more kids are coming to kindergarten better prepared.
Also, kindergartners are older than they used to be: 1 in 5 is 6 years old, in part due to the practice of "redshirting."
It should be said: The data in this study are six years old. It doesn't capture changes that may have taken place in schools since the adoption of the Common Core, for example. Kindergarten changed dramatically in just over a decade; as policies continue to shift, so too could practice. For now, it's less pretend time and more reading for the kids at Walker Jones Elementary, compared to what teacher Marisa McGee, 29, says she was expecting when she started.
"When I came into kindergarten, down from first grade, I was like: Yes! What can I order for dramatic play?" McGee says. "And I was told: Kindergartners don't do dramatic play anymore."
A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in January 2016.
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