Forget “The new first grade” – Is kindergarten the new fifth grade?

We are what we repeatedly do. – Aristotle

The role of kindergarten in the public school landscape has changed dramatically in the past few decades. What began in Germany in the late eighteenth century as a way to transition small children from the home to school using developmentally appropriate learning practices based in play and social interaction has morphed dramatically. Play and social interaction have been replaced with a focus on academic skill building to the point that kindergarten is now commonly referred to as the new first grade.

Much has been researched about the changing face of kindergarten, but this recent article from the Washington Post is from the perspective of a parent of a kindergartener. She describes attending an open house in which the teacher tells the parents “this really isn’t kindergarten anymore.” The teacher goes on to tell them that their children are treated more like first graders because of the emphasis on academics. The article also includes a link to some kindergarten schedules from around the country to support the claim that kindergarten ‘just ain’t what it yoosta be.’

This practice of having an academic driven kindergarten is no stranger here in Topeka. Below is the kindergarten schedule from Lowman Hill elementary (Topeka 501) from the just completed 2014-15 school year:

8:40 – 9:40 Math Block (calendar and lesson)
9:45 – 10:30 PE/Music
10:35 – 11:00 Science/Social Studies
11:00 – 11:20 Whole group reading
11:20 – 11:55 Lunch/Lunch Recess
11:55 – 12:35 Wrap-up/Writing
12:35 – 2:15 Guided Reading
2:15 – 2:30 Recess
2:30 – 3:00 Math centers/math intervention
3:00 – 3:35 Reading intervention and read aloud

This schedule is not unique to Lowman Hill. USD 501 prescribes the number of minutes in each of the core academic areas to all the elementary schools. Notice that there is a 60-minute uninterrupted block of time for math in the morning and a 100-minute uninterrupted block of time for reading in the afternoon! Does that seem like it matches the collective attention span of a room full of six-year olds?

But perhaps what is even more telling than the total minutes spent on academics in kindergarten each day is the relative time compared to how the other grades spend their day. The table below shows the number of minutes that makes up the school day for each grade. Every USD 501 student regardless of grade gets the same amount of recess, physical education, music and lunch. And it is kindergarten that spends the most time daily in reading and language, a full half-hour more than fourth graders and fifteen minutes more than fifth grade!


Even just a few decades ago it would have been unthinkable that the daily schedule of a kindergarten class would mirror a first grade class, let alone upper elementary grades. So how did this happen and does it improve academic performance and promote social skills?

There is no question the focus on academics in kindergarten grew out of declining outcomes produced by the public school system. It stems from the perception that the younger one starts, the more successful one will be. (If we followed that philosophy when it comes to driving, nobody could afford car insurance!) However, there is research-based evidence to the contrary. A recent article in Psychology Today cites studies that show academic-based kindergarten models demonstrate no long term academic improvement and can actually harm social and emotional development. Research has shown that “children’s immediate scores on the specific tests” increase, “but these initial gains wash out within 1 to 3 years and, at least in some studies, are eventually reversed.  Perhaps more tragic than the lack of long-term academic advantage of early academic instruction is evidence that such instruction can produce long-term harm, especially in the realms of social and emotional development.”

But instead of taking this evidence and reversing the academic-based kindergarten approach, the movement, inexplicably, is to start children on an academic-based path even earlier, having downshifted to pre-school.  In President Obama’s State of the Union address in 2013, he outlined a plan for universal pre-school. And this idea is shared across partisan lines with many Republicans embracing pre-school, as well as the conservative business community. And when there is universal pre-school and it becomes the new kindergarten, undoubtedly there will rise some sort of  pre-pre-school.

Where will it stop? When will we let kids of that age just be kids and let them learn at more age appropriate levels? This brings to mind an exchange I overheard between a principal and a pre-school teacher (I taught in a school that has full-day pre-school.) As I was approaching them in the hallway, I couldn’t help but overhear a discussion they were having about a particular boy who was having some problems in the pre-school classroom. As I was passing, I heard the principal tell the teacher, and I swear I’m not making this up: “He obviously isn’t ready for pre-school.”

Not ready for pre-school? I didn’t know that was possible. But that statement sums up the all-enveloping attitude of the education establishment: let us have control of the kids a year earlier than now, and when that doesn’t work, give them to us a year earlier.

Perhaps someday we’ll come to our senses and return to the core values of when I was in half-day kindergarten inside the Methodist church in Redfield, South Dakota: how to stand in line, don’t hit the kid next to you, and don’t eat the paste. All that, of course, after we had a nap.

I think Aristotle would approve.