A Recipe for Disaster: Common Core Standards for Kindergarten

This week, Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood released a report titled Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose outlining the potentially damaging effects of the Common Core standards for kindergarten students. Citing numerous research studies published over the past several years, the report makes several key recommendations, most notably that we immediately drop the Common Core kindergarten standards.

Since the 1980s, there has been increasing emphasis on academic skills in kindergarten, causing a shift from play-based classrooms to more direct instruction. No Child Left Behind, the Race to the Top, and the focus on Common Core standards have exacerbated this problem. And it is a problem: the emphasis on academic skills for our youngest students ignores years of research on how young children learn best. Many studies show that students who attend play-based preschools and kindergartens perform better on cognitive and social-emotional developmental scales than their peers who attend more academic programs. In addition, exposing children to the pressures of a highly academic environment at a very young age can have lasting harmful effects. The HighScope Preschool Curriculum Comparison Study found that, by age 15, students who attended direct instruction preschools were more than twice as likely to have exhibited delinquent behavior; by age 23, students who attended play-based preschools were significantly less likely to have required special education classes or to have felony arrest records.

There is no evidence that children who read at an early age have any advantage over children who learn to read one, two, or even three years later. A doctoral thesis written by Professor Sebastien Suggate found that, by fourth grade, there is no difference in the reading levels of students taught to read in kindergarten vs. those taught to read in first grade. Dr. Marcy Guddemi, Executive Director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, stated in a press release, “Our latest research shows that children are not reaching developmental milestones any faster than previous generations of children. Respecting the variations of development from child to child is more important than ever.“ We know that some children learn to walk earlier than others, and that most children say their first words sometime from eight months to fifteen months of age. We see some toddlers who are potty-trained by age two, and others who still have accidents at age four. We can accept that these developmental differences will have no lasting impact on a child’s future success in school or in life. Why, then, is it so hard to accept that children also learn to read at different ages, depending on each one’s unique developmental trajectory?

A good early childhood teacher crafts an environment in which all of her students acquire experiences which allow them to thrive and develop optimally. She carefully observes her students, ensuring that they participate in play that supports their cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. Within the classroom, there are activity centers that offer hands-on experiences with blocks, art materials, and imaginative play. It is a print-rich environment, with letters and words displayed in ways that help students to understand their meanings. The teacher shares numerous stories and books with the students so that they learn the joys of reading; these stories, combined with field trips and science experiments and other learning opportunities, give students the background knowledge and the skills to be able to construct meaning for themselves as they encounter challenging new concepts throughout their lives.

This stands in contrast to the Common Core standards for kindergarten, which require, among the ninety (90) specified standards, that kindergarten students do the following: recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet; read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding; associate the long and short sounds with common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels; and participate in shared research and writing projects. Given this tiny sampling of standards for our five-year-olds, is it any wonder that many educators, parents, and the students themselves are balking at the expectations being placed on them?

Finally, Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose raises an important assertion: that the adoption of the Common Core standards wrongly ignores the overwhelming research we have demonstrating that socioeconomic status is by far the strongest predictor of academic achievement in the United States. Having Common Core standards will not ensure that all students will suddenly be able to meet these standards; we still must address the impact of poverty on child development and the inequitable access to quality early childhood experiences. Thus, the authors of the report also recommend that, in addition to immediately suspending the kindergarten Common Core standards, we also:

  • Invest in high quality, long-term research on how best to help children become fluent readers by fourth grade;

  • Convene a task force of early childhood educators to recommend developmentally appropriate and culturally sensitive learning guidelines;

  • End high-stakes testing with children in Kindergarten through third grade, as well as the use of test scores to evaluate teachers and schools; and

  • Ensure that all students have experienced, highly trained early childhood educators.

Author and child development professor Nancy Carlsson-Paige hopes that this report will “lead people to understand that the Common Core standards are not grounded in research or child development theory.” She believes that as a nation, we must address the underlying causes of the achievement gap, because even the most appropriate academic standards will never alleviate issues of inequality.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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