It's a truism in education that high standards fuel rigor. Expect more; get more -- or so the thinking goes. Such a view has spawned a years-long curricular "pushdown" requiring children to learn content and master skills once relegated to their older peers.
This drive for excellence is laudable and worthwhile; who could argue against wanting more from schools, teachers, and students?
Yet our approach to accelerated learning is misguided, especially for our littlest learners. Rather than churning out prodigies, we're attenuating childhood.
Remember those halcyon moments spent sifting sand during center time in kindergarten? They're fading fast.
Five-year-olds are hitting the books like never before, racing to read, write, and compute. A 2009 Alliance for Childhood study found that kindergartens in New York City and Los Angeles devoted two-plus hours every day to math and literacy instruction, and more than 20 minutes to testing and test prep.
Hands-on educators lament our over-full slate of early academic demands. In a 2009 survey of 229 kindergarten teachers by Patricia Gallant, Ed.D., at the University of Michigan, almost all said standards were "developmentally inappropriate" for many students. First and second grade writing skills have trickled down to kindergartners, whose curriculum is "too academic" and creates "too much pressure," Gallant found. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade.
The latest iteration of our academic pushdown, Common Core, only will exacerbate this culture of unreasonable expectations. Developed through a partnership between the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers (and adopted by 45 states, including North Carolina), Common Core enumerates -- through standards for every grade -- the "knowledge and skills" kids need to succeed in college and work.
Though well-intentioned, Common Core is deeply problematic. Its implementation -- rolling out as many states face imploding budgets -- may cost states more than $15 billion over the next seven years, according to a 2012 Pioneer Institute report. And it smacks of a mandate: The Obama administration, while insisting Common Core participation is voluntary, nonetheless has tied federal funds to state adoption of the standards.
Yet Common Core's greatest impact likely will be on the napping and snacking set. For example, Common Core stipulates that children be able to "read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding" by the end of kindergarten.
One first-grade teacher who has taught for 16 years told me that pushing 5-year-olds to read before they're ready is like forcing them to grasp for a rung on a ladder some simply cannot reach. It's a stressful, fragmented approach that leaves kindergartners with little energy for the things they should be doing, such as strengthening the "muscles of the mind."
A bevy of educators would agree. In 2010 hundreds of early childhood health and education professionals signed a joint statement detailing their "grave concerns" that Common Core standards were at odds with research about "how children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades." And in a recent Education Week commentary, Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote that Common Core's standards "overestimate the intellectual, physiological, and emotional development of young children."
Why are we pushing kids so hard, so soon? It's time to halt our kindergarten hustle. Certainly, high standards are an essential component of any reasoned education policy. But when they're crafted without due consideration to the stages and constraints of child development, they do little good -- and a lot of harm. And they set kids up for stress and failure, right when they should be falling in love with learning.
Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance fellow.