Kindergarten Readiness: Anxiety and Hope

BlogHer Original Post

Plug "kindergarten readiness" into your favorite search engine, and you'll discover a veritable industry of products and programs aimed at testing and preparing children to enter kindergarten. Clearly, parents are anxious about children's ability to succeed in kindergarten. The level of anxiety, however, seems to have increased lately.

In the U.S., most children begin kindergarten at age 5, but as the New York Times Magazine reported in June, the ages of children in a single class may vary by 15 months or more. The push to keep children in kindergarten for longer, the article notes, stems from

"the accountability movement — the high-stakes testing now pervasive in the American educational system. In response to this testing, kindergartens across the country have become more demanding: if kids must be performing on standardized tests in third grade, then they must be prepping for those tests in second and first grades, and even at the end of kindergarten, or so the thinking goes. The testing also means that states, like students, now get report cards, and they want their children to do well, both because they want them to be educated and because they want them to stack up favorably against their peers."

This high-stakes testing movement is inspiring states to raise the age of entry for kindergartners. For example, the article also reports, California may move its birthday cut-off date from December 31 of the year the child is in kindergarten to September 1. Since I have a 23-month-old who was a Labor Day baby--born September 5--this means that even if my child is deemed ready for kindergarten based on his skills, we'll be paying for another year of preschool, which in my area starts at about $700 per month for preschools with large classes. Yes, in the long term my son may benefit, but this potential change in dates--along with the continued financial hardship they may bring me--has made me sit up and take notice of the conversations surrounding kindergarten readiness.

But what is kindergarten readiness? The ABC Home Preschool Blog offers a rundown, including communications and social milestones, as well which motor skills a child should have developed before entering kindergarten. Kate Sanford of The Anachronistic Mom offers her own take on some of the wacky perceived requirements for entry to kindergarten. Go check them out.

Bloggers with preschoolers and kindergartners have continued the discussion of issues raised by the article, particularly that of "redshirting," or holding back your child to improve his or her self-esteem, wait until he or she is physically larger and stronger (a benefit for athletes in older grades), or more intellectually developed. The article reported that this practice is particularly widespread in affluent communities; 6 to 9 percent of kindergartners are held back from entering due to age or repeat kindergarten nationwide, while in wealthy communities the rate is three to four times that rate.

Research is unclear as to whether children who are kindergarten redshirts see any benefit from the practice. Says Elizabeth Weil, the author of the NYT Magazine article,

"For years, education scholars have pointed out that most studies have found that the benefits of being relatively older than one’s classmates disappear after the first few years of school. In a literature review published in 2002, Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford school of education, found studies in which children who are older than their classmates not only do not learn more per grade but also tend to have more behavior problems. However, more recent research by labor economists takes advantage of new, very large data sets and has produced different results. A few labor economists do concur with the education scholarship, but most have found that while absolute age (how many days a child has been alive) is not so important, relative age (how old that child is in comparison to his classmates) shapes performance long after those few months of maturity should have ceased to matter."

This doesn't mean, however, that parents don't feel a good deal of anxiety over kindergarten readiness. Susan of Crunchy Granola recently decided to have her daughter repeat kindergarten. Her assessment of her daughter's readiness for kindergarten reflects concerns expressed by parents throughout the blogosphere:

"Curious Girl's pre-K teachers asked us last October if we'd thought about having her repeat pre-K. Not for a second, we hadn't. But they were considering it, for a number of reasons: her complete lack of interest in story-time, her lack of interest in any sort of direct instruction, her drawing skillls (usually not filling a page, usually scribbling), a sort of social immaturity, and finally, her size. (Her size turns out to be irrelevant: we'd have to put her in a room of 3 year olds to look remotely average: next year, she may still be the smallest kid in the room, although presumably the gap will be smaller.) As the year went on, CG definitely developed. She's perceptive, she's verbal, she likes people. But she withdrew, significantly, in the last week of school, I think reacting to her friends' willingness to play in groups of three or four. She still likes to play one-on-one. It was heartbreaking to see the sudden shift in her classroom behavior. Is this developmental, or a personality trait? She doesn't like storytime. At home, she never sits still for the first reading of any story. On second, fourth, hundredth readings she will talk to the pictures and interact with the book. Is this a reading style, or developmental?"

Twice asks an interesting and important question: "is this starting an academic 'arms race' of a sort?" She points out that there is little discussion of such in the article. She continues, "Aren't both of these the sort of thing we're facing with college admissions now? It doesn't seem like a good thing."

The Scholar's Notebook offers a different kind of critique: "the kindergarten readiness industry, led by the powerful Ready4K lobby, is still pushing its aggressive, 'it takes the government to raise a child' takeover of parenting." He continues: "While state spending targeted to at-risk populations makes sense (for example, the $6 million signed into law this year for Governor Tim Pawlenty’s early childhood scholarship program for families of at-risk pre-kindergarteners), Baby Ed programs like universal preschool or all-day kindergarten aimed at all Minnesotans are at best an unnecessary expansion of the nanny state." (Note: Ready4K started a blog in May.)

Some have placed the kindergarten readiness "crisis" in economic terms, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported some of these statistics. See also Dad29's comments on economic arguments for kindergarten readiness.

Homeschooler Elizabeth of Hearthside laments:

"Those who make decisions about students expect children to fit into neat molds. Phonemic awareness, mathmatic readiness, one-to-one correspondence, even running speed are evaluated against norms, and eventually assessed using state-wide exams. These results are, in turn, used to determine the success of the children, the schools, and the effectiveness of No Child Left Behind. The farther we run in this race, the more we are destined to leave more children behind because of the simple failure to diregard that what should be evaluated is the effectiveness of the curriculum for the child, not the other way around."

ElisaLou writes very eloquently of her decisions surrounding kindergarten and of the pressures on children in her community:

"Red-shirting is a very common practice in our area. All of Austin’s friends that have summer birthdays were held so it just made sense for us to hold him back too. When he was in preschool the principal of the school he now attends visited to give a talk about kindergarten readiness. It was clear that she believed that kids should not start early. She ended her talk with the line, “education is not a race, it is a life-long journey.” I always thought that was such a wise statement and a couple years later when Austin started her school, I saw why. They are now using a 2nd grade curriculum for the kindergarteners and the expectations for reading scores were well above what was required for our district, and way above what is required for our state. School meant getting down to business, play time was over. When both of my school-age boys turned 5 we had the choice of paying for another year of preschool or sending them on. Both of their preschool teachers said they were ready to go to Kindergarten. As I went back and forth in my head about sending or holding (especially with Blake, who is absolutely huge) I just kept coming back to the same thing. My boys have one chance to be a kid. Once they start down the road of education, that’s it. If I can give them an extra year to play, let that be my gift to them. That last year before they started school was filled with preschool and tons of rec center classes taking everything from sports and swimming to art and music. I can honestly say that I soaked it all in and when I scooted their little butts out the door on the first day of kindergarten I did so with the feeling that I had done everything I could to give these little guys the best head start I could."

That makes me so sad: "School meant getting down to business, play time was over." That wasn't my own experience in the 1980s, but then again I was fortunate to be in gifted classrooms where teachers were welcome to experiment with what might today be termed "alternative" methods of learning in classes with children who had at one point scored high on an IQ test. No matter when he enters kindergarten, I hope my son has the same positive, and largely stress-free, elementary school experience than I did.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks, a recovering academic and an fledgling academic technologist, blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and Green West Magazine.


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