Preschool kids work more, learn less

Preschool won’t close the achievement gap as long as teachers focus on kindergarten prep and neglect conversation, writes Erika Christakis in The Atlantic. “Today’s young children are working more, but they’re learning less,” she argues.

“A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool,” she writes.

Four-year-olds are asked to sit still and complete pencil-and-paper tasks that are beyond their motor skills and attention spans, writes Christakis. But it doesn’t work.

One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes,” Christakis points out.

A Vanderbilt study found low-income children who attended Tennessee’s publicly funded preschools started kindergarten with more “school readiness” skills than a control group. By first grade, teachers rated the preschool grads as “less well prepared for school, having poorer work skills in the classrooms, and feeling more negative about school,” the researchers write. They blame burn out.

The average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” estimates Robert Pianta, a leading child policy expert. Research suggests higher-quality preschools could cut the gap by 30 to 50 percent, he writes.

Quality preschools “provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language,” writes Christakis.

. . . their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.

. . . In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

Conversation is the golden key, she writes.

More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.

The article comes from her book, The Importance of Being Little: What Preschoolers Really Need From Grownups.

If the name sounds familiar, it is. As associate master of a Yale college, Christakis wrote an email saying that college students could pick their own Halloween costumes. Under heavy fire for racial insensitivity, she resigned her teaching job at Yale citing a “climate” on campus that is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”

Study: Kindergarten ‘red shirting’ works

Delaying kindergarten for one year dramatically reduced inattention and hyperactivity at age 11, according to The Gift of Time, a Stanford study.

The study was conducted in Denmark, where children enroll in kindergarten in the calendar year they turn six.  Those born in December are 5 3/4 when they start kindergarten; those born in January are 6 3/4.

Children glue leaves on paper for an art project in a Danish kindergarten class.

Danish kindergartners work on an art project using leaves.

Danish children can go to “reasonably good” preschool programs, said Thomas Dee, a Stanford education professor and co-author of the study. Delaying kindergarten may not benefit children who don’t have access to good pre-K.

About 20 percent of U.S. children now start kindergarten at age six instead of age five, researchers found. Most of the increase is due to “redshirting.” Parents want their child — especially a boy — to be more mature.

“It’s not just a question of when do you start kindergarten, but what do you do in those kindergarten classes?” Dee said. “If you make kindergarten the new first grade, then parents may sensibly decide to delay entry.”

Illiteracy isn’t as joyful in the U.S.

Teaching reading in kindergarten is a mistake, argues an expatriate teacher in an Atlantic paean to the “joyful, illiterate kindergartners of Finland.

We’re not Finns, responds reading expert Timothy Shanahan. The “whistle a happy tune” approach won’t work here.

Most Finnish parents are well-educated and literate, he writes. More than one-third of children enter school already reading, according to a government study.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

Most U.S. kindergartens teach reading.

In addition, the Finnish language may be the easiest language to learn to read, writes Shanahan. “The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is highly consistent, making it especially easy and quick to learn to decode.”

The Atlantic story quotes Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emeritus of early childhood education, who claims, “There isn’t any solid evidence that shows that children who are taught to read in kindergarten have any long-term benefit from it.” The quote comes from a Defending the Early Years video.

As chair of the National Early Literacy Panel, Shanahan looked at the research, he writes. “We found long-term benefits from early learning.”

Where kindergarten is the new preschool

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In Finland, kindergarten is known as “preschool,” writes Tim Walker, an American who’s taught there. Children start school at six and learn by playing.

Once, Morning Circle—a communal  time of songs and chants—wrapped up, the children disbanded and flocked to the station of their choice: There was one involving fort-making with bed sheets, one for arts and crafts, and one where kids could run a pretend ice-cream shop.

“I’ll take two scoops of pear and two scoops of strawberry—in a waffle cone,” I told the two kindergarten girls who had positioned themselves at the ice-cream table; I had a (fake) 10€ bill to spend, courtesy of one of the teachers. As one of the girls served me—using blue tack to stick laminated cutouts of scoops together—I handed the money to her classmate.

. . . After a long pause, one of her teachers—perhaps sensing a good opportunity to step in—helped her calculate the difference between the price of my order and the 10€.

Once I received my change (a few plastic coins), the girls giggled as I pretended to lick my ice cream.

Many of her 15 students will learn to read by the end of the year, Anni-Kaisa Osei Ntiamoah told Walker. “We don’t push them but they learn just because they are ready for it.”

Kindergarten is “the new first grade” in the U.S., according to a University of Virginia study. As more time is spent on literacy, children spend less time on arts, music and child-selected activities, such as rotating between “stations.”

“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas told Walker in an e-mail.

(She described) three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math — on the fourth week of school.

. . . (She) has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes  “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.”

Last year, the district tried to remove the “house station with dolls and toy food” from the classroom.

Test prep for 5-year-olds

Test-prep-for-5-year-olds-is-a-real-thing, writes Phyllis Doerr, a New Jersey kindergarten teacher, in the Washington Post‘s Answer Sheet.

For the vocabulary test, the teachers says a word from the “nursery rhyme” unit, then reads a sentence with the word.  If word is used correctly and the sentence makes sense, students are supposed to circle a smiley face. If the word is used incorrectly, they should circle a frown.

“This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed,” writes Doerr.

The practice started with “market” from from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” “Who can tell me what a market is?” she asked.

One boy answered, “I like oranges.”

“Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?”

. . . Another student chimed in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nodded.

. . . Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

Students — those paying attention –nodded their heads.

“Girls and boys, look at me and listen,” I said. ” I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?” At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

Teaching vocabulary is valuable, but testing is meaningless and wastes time, concludes Doerr.

Is it so difficult for five-year-olds to understand whether a sentence makes sense? Does a no-stakes vocabulary test have to be stressful?

Too much homework for kids, too little for teens

Kindergarten, first- and second-graders are doing too much homework, while high schools students are doing too little, concludes a study of Rhode Island students published  by the American Journal of Family Therapy.

Duke Professor Harris Cooper’s “10-minute rule” calls for a maximum of 10 minutes a night in first grade, plus an additional 10 for every subsequent grade, writes Laura Moser on Slate. “That means that a third-grader should be doing roughly 30 minutes a night and a twelfth-grader should be doing 120. And kindergartners shouldn’t be doing any.”

“Primary school children received about three times the recommended load of homework,” based on the 10-minute rule, writes Moser. Kindergartners were averaging almost 25 minutes a night, while first- and second-graders were up to 30 minutes a night.

However, high-schoolers were averaging less than an hour a night instead of the 90 to 120 minutes recommended.

In affluent, educated communities, students are assigned lots of homework. Some of them actually do it. I don’t think homework loads are high for disadvantaged students.

The study was featured on CNN, writes Alexander Russo, but got bad reviews from education analysts on Twitter. 

Social skills lead to success

“Socially competent” kindergarteners — kids who cooperate and play well with others — are more likely to complete college and work full-time by their mid-20s, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Their less socially skilled classmates were more likely to have a criminal record and to report binge drinking.

In 1991 teachers evaluated kindergarteners on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well they interacted with others, including measures like: “cooperates with peers without prompting”; “is helpful to others”; “is very good at understanding feelings”; “can give suggestions and opinions without being bossy”; and “resolves problems on own.”

Childhood aggression measures did not predict criminal activity, notes Education Week.

For every one-point increase on a five-point scale, children were twice as likely to earn a college degree; 54 percent more likely to earn a high school diploma, and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job. On the down side, for every one-point decrease, a child was 67 percent more likely to have been arrested by adulthood, and 82 percent more likely to be in or on a waiting list for public housing.

Researchers believe young children can be taught social skills, possibly affecting their later success in life.

Wait-for-the-marshmallow children from low-income, black families experience less depression, substance abuse and aggression than their peers with less self-control, according to another new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  But disadvantaged blacks with high self-control age faster,

In earlier research, self-control was linked to high blood pressure, obesity and higher levels of stress hormones for blacks from low-income families, but not for middle-class blacks or for whites.

More time for ‘purposeful play’ in kindergarten


Therese Iwancio playing a game with her kindergarten class at Cecil Elementary school in Baltimore. Photo: Gabriella Demczuk, New York Times

Kindergarten teachers are asking students to learn reading, writing and math skills once taught in first or second grade, reports Motoko Rich in the New York Times. In some districts and states, teachers are being trained to use “purposeful play to “guide children to learning goals through games, art and general fun.”

A study comparing federal government surveys of kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2010 by researchers at the University of Virginia found that the proportion of teachers who said their students had daily art and music dropped drastically. Those who reported teaching spelling, the writing of complete sentences and basic math equations every day jumped.

Schools with more low-income and minority students were more likely to cut back on art and music while increasing the use of textbooks, reports Rich.

Educators in low-income districts believe their students need explicit instruction in academics. “Middle-class parents are doing this anyway, so if we don’t do it for kids who are not getting it at home, then they are going to start at an even greater disadvantage,” said Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford.

I wonder how often “purposeful” play is effective at achieving its purpose. All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy.

 

How to parent like a German


Photo by Metro Centric

Parenting like a German means giving kids more freedom, Sara Zaske writes in Time.

The first time I went to a playground in Berlin, I freaked. All the German parents were huddled together, drinking coffee, not paying attention to their children who were hanging off a wooden dragon 20 feet above a sand pit. Where were the piles of soft padded foam? The liability notices? The personal injury lawyers?

Despite the stereotypes, Germans are mellow parents, she writes. “Most grade school kids walk without their parents to school and around their neighborhoods. Some even take the subway alone.” It’s not called “free-range parenting.” It’s normal.

Kindergarten is considered a time for play and social learning. Children are learn to read in first grade, but “academics aren’t pushed very hard.”  A half day of instruction includes two outdoor recesses.

German children play outside every day. If it’s cold, they bundle up.

Starting first grade is marked by a big party called Einschulung.

 In Berlin, Einschulung is a huge celebration at the school—on a Saturday!—that includes getting a Zuckertute—a giant child-sized cone filled with everything from pencils to watches to candy. Then there’s another party afterwards with your family and friends. Einschulung is something children look forward to for years. It signals a major life change, and hopefully, an enthusiasm for learning.

There’s another big party when a child turns 14.

Core kindergarten: It’s not that hard

Common Core isn’t too hard for kindergarteners, argues Robert Pondiscio in Education Next.  

The Core’s call for kids to learn fundamental literacy skills will push out play-based learning, argues a report, titled Reading in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose.  That could harm children.

There’s nothing new about expecting kindergartens to learn the alphabet or know that print is read from left to right, says Pondiscio. The report complains about only one Common Core expectation: By the end of kindergarten, children should be able to “[r]ead emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”

That means kids about to enter first grade should be able to read “I am Sam and I am an ant,” writes Pondiscio. We’re not talking Proust.

 Most kids can already read simple texts by the end of kindergarten. And those who struggle early tend to continue to struggle—both in school and in life. The authors are absolutely correct that telling stories, reading from picture books, singing songs, reciting poems, activity centers, and imaginative play all help build literacy skills. That’s why none of those are discouraged by Common Core.

The report suggests the Core forces kindergarten teachers to turn their classrooms into “joyless grinding mills” with all work and no play. That’s silly, writes Pondiscio. “Nothing in Common Core—not one blessed thing—precludes schools and teachers from creating safe, warm, nurturing classrooms that are play-based, engaging, and cognitively enriching.”

If kindergarten teachers don’t know how to use songs, stories, games and activities to introduce children to early reading skills, teacher education programs should show them how, he writes.

Most parents teach these skills at home. Their kids are far beyond “I am Sam” by the end of kindergarten. Other children need to be taught in school.