Kindergarten Readiness and "Cramming"

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Homework in kindergarten? Testing 5- and 6-year-olds every six weeks? Whatever happened to play? Last week, Peggy Orenstein wrote an article for New York Times Magazine about these workload and structure issues facing the youngest students. She writes,

I came late to motherhood, so I had plenty of time to ponder friends’ mania for souped-up childhood learning. How was it that the same couples who piously proclaimed that 3½-year-old Junior was not “developmentally ready” to use the potty were drilling him on flashcards? What was the rush? Did that better prepare kids to learn? How did 5 become the new 7, anyway?

There’s no single reason. The No Child Left Behind Act, with its insistence that what cannot be quantified cannot be improved, plays a role. But so do parents who want to build a better child. There is also what marketers refer to as KGOY — Kids Getting Older Younger — their explanation for why 3-year-olds now play with toys that were initially intended for middle-schoolers.

Orenstein agrees with Daniel Pink that the viability of the U.S. lies in its playfulness, creativity, versatility, and vision. She suggests we need a "slow schools" movement modeled on the push for slow food.

Why aren't our states' content standards geared at developing these qualities in our youngest students? Why are we obsessed with "covering" material instead of letting children discover or uncover things? Even the standards that should be encouraging creative development are attuned to analytical and mathematical skills. The prekindergarten music standards in California, for example, calls for students to notate and analyze music, and the first-grade music standards start mentioning careers and career-related skills.

Among the facts conveyed in Orenstein's op-ed is this gem: "a flotilla of research shows homework confers no benefit — enhancing neither retention nor study habits — until middle school." If you're interested in this issue--including news of school districts abolishing homework for young students--definitely check out Sara Bennett's Stop Homework blog.

Commenting on a post about Orenstein's article at the Stop Homework blog, Kat writes,

Kindergarten has become such a source of stress for so many parents. There are so many parents I know that struggle with the whole idea of “kindergarten readiness”. My son had to go to a screening at the school to see if he was “ready”. The whole idea just flabbergasted me, I mean wasn’t kindergarten the place where we used to “get ready”? The only thing we used to have to do was learn to show up everyday and share and sit in our seats.

So true. I loved kindergarten, but I do remember taking standardized tests that required filling in little bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. At the same time, we did crafts every day and had plenty of time on the playground.

It's easy to be nostalgic about one's own kindergarten experience. It's absolutely harrowing to be the mother of a young child whose birthday falls in early September--meaning we need to choose whether he'll start kindergarten as a very young five year-old or a very young six year-old. I tear up at the thought of him having to do homework at age 5, 6, or 7 when he gets home from school, rather than running around the yard playing with the dog until it gets dark outside, or reading books together of our choosing, or doing an art project. Perhaps my reaction is too emotional. Or maybe it's that I was a high-achieving kid who was frustrated with too much homework and with a rigorous testing regimen.

Sara left a comment at Wheels on the Bus that indicates she might sympathize with my concerns about after-school play:

As a mom of TWO kindergartners, I support this no homework policy with all my being. HW in the early grades often seems about ‘parent work,’ not kid work. HW in kindergarten appears to attempt to send the message that this school, whatever it may be, is academically rigorous and serious about preparing kids for x and y and z schools in his/her future. I lament that many schools miss a HUGE piece while caught up in the academic rigor thing (and testing scores)– that kids need social and emotional growth as well, that they need help with life skills that go well beyond elementary school: how to be a member of a community, how to voice one’s opinion, how to deal with disappointment, how to name one’s feelings, how to disagree with others in a respectful way, etc. Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the importance of creative play. . .

I love that when I get home with my sons, we choose our schedule. One afternoon may be folding origami whales, another scootering outside, another investigating the mushrooms sprouting on the grass, another sacked out on the couch, etc. without the pressure and pull to get some school-assigned worksheets completed. . .

Amy Silverman of Girl in a Party Hat admits that she's not entirely sympathetic to Orenstein's concerns.

I think homework is a good thing. Granted, there’s a little too much math in second grade, and I know it’s because Annabelle’s being prepared for tests, which frustrates me. (And hey, someday can we please have an art program in school?!)

But as a busy working parent, I have come to really appreciate homework. If nothing else, it forces us all to sit at the kitchen table and focus on the same thing (I struggle with that second grade more than Annabelle does, I admit) and in kindergarten, at least, the homework is far from onerous. On the days Ms. X has reading groups, she sends home a very short book, which Sophie is to read to us. We all love it. It lets me know what both girls are working on and how they are doing.

Maybe Orenstein is referring to a far more strenuous regimen, because it’s hard to imagine her finding fault with the nightly book in kindergarten, and the accompanying sheet Ray or I must sign to acknowledge Sophie did her work. I know this will sound horribly judgemental, but since I started off by judging the parents who can’t get their kids to school on time, I’ll continue on with the parents who don’t know what their kids are up to at school and I’ll just say it: Homework in kindergarten is for the parent, not the kid. It creates a pattern, some learned behavior — responsibility.

Want to read more? Visit these blogs for more commentary on homework in kindergarten:

Kindergarten + Homework = Necessary? at Parenting by Trial and Error

Pretend time is over, honey; do your homework at Momformation

Kindergarten Homework at Petticoat Government

This is Kindergarten Homework? at I Miss My Sanity

The Movement to Slow Down Our Schools at Take Part Blog

Growing Up Too Fast? at Motherlode

What are your thoughts on homework for young students?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.