In January, a University of Virginia study came out confirming what parents and teachers had been noticing for years: that kindergarten today is more about reading and writing than about dress-up and pretend play.
The study, “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” compared federal government surveys of public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2010 and found that over that period, the percentage of teachers who taught students how to write sentences at least once a week jumped from 67 percent to 94 percent, and those who said they taught math equations more than doubled from 16 percent to 38 percent.
At the same time, the percentage of teachers who said they taught music every day dropped from 34 percent to 16 percent, daily instruction in art dropped from 27 to 11 percent and the percentage of teachers who said they had an area of the classroom designated for play dropped from 87 percent to 58 percent.
A charged debate over whether the change is good or bad for the 5-year-old set has been brewing in public school circles, but at day schools, educators stand firmly in the middle ground. Seeming to walk an educational tightrope, they say that making reading and math instruction available for those who are ready for it is beneficial, as long as those who aren’t, are not pushed too far.
“At our school we really look at the kids who are in front of us and structure the day around them,” said Deanna Stecker, the Conservative movement-affiliated Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan’s coordinator of learning support.
“We’re not rushing to have everyone advancing, but the kids who are ready to advance, we want them to have the experiences that allow them to build the skills that they’re ready for,” said the school’s head, Benjamin Mann.
Debbie Levine-Greenbaum, director of early childhood education at the Modern Orthodox-affiliated Yeshivah of Flatbush, agreed. “If Joey comes in [to kindergarten] and he’s reading, there’s no reason for him to sit through all these ABC lessons,” she said. But, she added, “We are very careful not to put a child in the position of trying to learn something if they’re not ready for it.”
More than a dozen educators interviewed across the Reform through Modern Orthodox day school spectrum said that while some day schools put more emphasis on play than others, the value that they all agreed on is the importance of tailoring the education to the individual child.
“In Jewish education, we say we teach children according to their way, so we have to really individualize,” said Marc Kramer, co-executive director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network. “I think that really is the bounty of the Jewish day school, that at the end of the day the subject, the object and the purpose of the Jewish day school is not one ideology or another about reading or math but a focus on the individual child.”
“No two 5-year-olds are the same,” he added.
“We’re not rushing towards some standard that we think every child needs to meet,” said Mallory Rome, head of school at the Rashi School, a Reform movement-affiliated school just outside of Boston. “Our concern is that each child be advancing his or her skills, so we differentiate very intentionally to make sure we’re meeting every child’s needs.”
Whether or not a school considers itself play-based, the heads of schools interviewed all said their schools’ expectations for kindergarten are roughly on par with those laid out by the Common Core state standards initiative that were rolled out in the 2012-2013 school year: that most kids leave kindergarten able to read and do simple addition and subtraction problems.
But what matters more than which skills are being taught is how they are being taught.
“The Common Core sets out standards that kids have to reach, but there are a lot of paths to those standards,” said Shellie Dickstein, director of Early Childhood and Family Engagement at The Jewish Education Project. “Common Core doesn’t dictate that you have to sit down with a pen and paper all the time.”
The problem, these educators said, is when children are expected to learn by sitting at their desks doing worksheets. Those same skills are better taught through active experiences.
For example, said Solomon Schechter of Manhattan’s Stecker, her school’s kindergarten class recently did a unit on Israel and was learning the major cities there. The kids came up with the idea of setting up an airplane to fly from one city to another. The teachers readily agreed. During the exercise, the kids practiced a variety of skills, such as writing while making passports and math when figuring out how many chairs they would need on the plane.
“We believe that people learn best when they engage with ideas, phenomena, texts and then use collaboration to figure things out for themselves,” said Mann.
Educators interviewed agreed that kindergarten has become more academic over the past few decades.
“Years ago we were not teaching them to read in kindergarten, but now we do,” said Levine-Greenbaum of Yeshivah of Flatbush. “There is less play than there used to be years and years back, and the play is different now. ... It’s very purposeful.”
One of the reasons that academics have become more advanced in kindergarten is that kids now come in more prepared. A greater percentage arrives at kindergarten with a year or two of preschool under their belts and often having learned their ABCs on apps and websites, they said.
“I see children coming into our school at the kindergarten level more prepared than they were, perhaps, years ago,” said Sandi Swerdloff, Lower School principal at Schechter School of Long Island.
Swerdloff said that although there’s been a backlash against the Common Core standards among public school parents, she thinks the requirements are reasonable. “I think it got a very bad name,” she said.
The Common Core standards aren’t the problem, several of the educators interviewed said. It’s that debates over standardized testing and teacher evaluations have become conflated with it. “I think high-stakes testing has really distorted what the Common Core itself is trying to accomplish,” said Rome of The Rashi School.
Part of the reason that there hasn’t been a backlash against the Common Core standards among day school parents is because those standards are on par with what day schools were already doing.
“The difference is that the day schools were already there [at a higher level],” agreed Dickstein of The Jewish Education Project. “There has always been a more academic atmosphere in yeshivot.”
Like all the educators interviewed, Swerdloff and Dickstein both emphasized that the most important thing is to teach each child at his or her own level.
“Everyone develops at his or her own pace and you can’t rush it,” Swerdloff said. “But when it clicks, it clicks like a bonfire.”