Finding balance not easy

Nebraska’s kindergarten teachers are sounding the alarm about the push for rigorous academic instruction in their classrooms, calling instead for more playtime that scientists say stimulates young brains.

Teachers and children feel intense pressure to perform and meet increasing standards and expectations, according to a new draft report that takes aim at the culture of drill and testing encouraged by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

“These kids are 5,” said Melody Hobson, an early-education administrator in the Nebraska Department of Education who co-authored the preliminary report. “And 5-year-olds respond very, very well and learn amazing amounts, but they’re 5. We don’t need to expect that they’re 10.”

The report was written by the department’s early-childhood specialists, school district representatives and college professors after input last fall from kindergarten teachers statewide.

It aims to offer parents and teachers more guidance on kindergarten. But it has yet to be adopted by the Nebraska Board of Education and, in fact, comes as schools try to implement new state literacy standards for kindergartners imposed by the state board.

Some educators are wondering how the report and the new standards are supposed to work together.

Nebraska Commissioner of Education Roger Breed called the draft a “work in progress” and a “discussion starter.”

He said the goal is not to retreat from academic rigor but to come up with a classroom model that “minimizes the damage that either all play or all work might cause.”

The report calls the state of kindergarten education in Nebraska a crisis, blaming No Child Left Behind.

The bipartisan act, supported by the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy and signed into law by President George Bush in 2002, arose from a national consensus that American education was falling short. It sets benchmarks for student improvement, requires states to test for annual progress and calls on failing districts to shape up or face consequences.

Many educators attribute the push for higher academic standards — including Nebraska’s new kindergarten literacy standards — to the law.

Although No Child Left Behind doesn’t require standardized testing until third grade, educators are focusing on younger grades to get children ready for those tests, said Susan McWilliams, assistant professor in the teacher education department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, who contributed to the report.

Some districts require teachers to complete 10 assessments on each child — more than 200 a quarter, the report says.

Catie Limbach, a kindergarten teacher in Crawford, Neb., said that prior to this year the state had no specific kindergarten standards, and first-grade standards were “pushed down” to kindergarten. Now, with standards that spell out what kindergartners must know, teachers can resist the push down, which Limbach called “scary.”

“I’ve had kindergarten teachers tell me before that they wouldn’t send their kids to their own kindergarten classroom,” she said.

Nonetheless, kindergartners will be expected to master more advanced concepts under the new standards.

Ten years ago, kindergartners worked on printing letters of the alphabet and their names. Now, they work on words and sentences.

Traditionally, educators would not expect kids to leave kindergarten reading fluently. Now, under the new standards, they have to do just that. Fluency means using pauses, phrasing and emphasis in one’s voice to bring out the meaning of words.

Denise Penning teaches kindergarten at Spring Lake Elementary School in the Omaha Public Schools and has seen her classroom transformed by the push for more academics.

When she first started teaching 10 years ago, kindergarten lasted a half-day. Students had calendar time, reading, snacks, math, free time to play in activity centers, and then were dismissed before lunch.

Now, kindergartners are in school from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Students start with music and movement, then reading, followed by a 15-minute recess and a 30-minute lunch. Then comes physical education, music or art, math, social studies and center time, during which children can draw, work on puzzles or read by themselves.

To fit everything in last year, Penning cut music and movement — a time to sing, dance and move around — but she restored it this year.

“There was just so much in the day,” she said. “I did not allow myself to have music and movement. And my kids suffered. Not that they were not successful, because they were. But maybe I stressed them out too much, or I stressed myself out too much.”

Students now start the day with a song to “get our day going with energy, just get their bodies and their brains working more,” she said.

She’s vowing not to cut center time, which she calls “their time.”

In March, the national nonprofit Alliance for Childhood warned that play is disappearing from the nation’s classrooms.

The nation’s children spend about 30 minutes a day in play or center time, and four to six times that amount in math and reading instruction, according to the alliance. And teacher direction often dominates center time, which involves little imagination, creativity or free play.

Countries envied for their academic achievement — China, Japan and Finland — foster a playful childhood, sparing rigid academic instruction until about second grade, said Michelle Rupiper, associate professor in the college of education and human sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Germany moved away from play-based kindergarten in the 1970s and discovered that kids did worse in reading and math and were less socially adjusted.

“The kids in the play-based kindergarten showed more creativity, more intelligence, more oral expression, more industry,” said Rupiper, who directs the Ruth Staples Child Development Lab.

Skilled teachers embed learning in play, and kids don’t even realize they’re learning, she said.

When children cut Play-Doh cookies, a teacher might ask how to divide them up evenly — a math concept. A child playing with magnets learns about the concepts of attracting and repelling.

But Roger Boyer, superintendent of the Wilcox-Hildreth school district in central Nebraska, said the idea of more play is “going backward.”

“It’s really not preparing kids for where they need to be,” he said.

Boyer teamed with private preschool teacher Kathryn Black to pursue a grant to start a district preschool, but they suspended their efforts after reading state rules.

“We were kind of disenchanted with the curriculum that they are saying you need to use, because it was very play-oriented,” Boyer said. “Everything was focused on play centers and not much structure, where kids could go to whatever centers they wanted to work and play.”

Black, a certified elementary school teacher, said the preschool rules reflected “a glorified day care.”

At her Katfish Pond Preschool in Hildreth, Neb., she introduces children ages 3 to 5 to phonics. Black teaches letter sounds and counting. Work sheets are part of the lessons.

The majority of her students, she said, recognize and count objects up to 20 — many, higher. “I have them blending sounds, if not reading, by the time they enter kindergarten.”

Black said she wouldn’t expect children this age to do academics all day. But she believes that academic instruction has a place in preschool and kindergarten.

“These young children can do so much more than we’ve given them credit,” she said.

Early childhood is the right time to give children the building blocks that allow them to create, innovate and think critically in later years, said Jennifer Marshall, director of domestic policy studies for the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former teacher.

Young children are eager to learn and soak up factual information.

“In some ways, I think we’ve painted a false dilemma here: that learning academic material at that age can’t be fun and can’t be something that children and teachers together eagerly approach,” Marshall said.

The state report and others attribute part of the problem to the spread of all-day kindergarten.

About 90 percent of the state’s districts offer it. In 1997, fewer than 7 percent did. With more time in the day, lessons previously taught in first grade have ended up in kindergarten.

If educators are serious about wanting children to play more, all-day kindergarten isn’t the answer, said Vicki Murray, associate director of education studies for the Pacific Research Institute in California.

“If you look at all the evils that the report has brought up about overly structuring children, too much activities, too much regimentation, then the last place you want children is in a highly centralized, highly bureaucratic school setting,” she said.

Outside of school, the report says, children spend much of their day watching TV and in structured sports, music or dance programs where they are often “scheduled to the point of burnout.”

Murray said society should look for solutions outside the school system, so that children can get rich, educational experiences that aren’t confined to a formal classroom setting.

Murray said educators have recognized the importance of play since at least the early 1970s, when schools were embracing experimental classrooms, taking down the walls.

In fact, Nebraska’s report is a throwback to its 1984 position statement on kindergarten, which was issued in response to a growing belief that 5-year-olds were more advanced than in the past.

That statement cautioned that kindergarten should remain a place where “play is respected for its value as an appropriate learning medium,” and it rejected what it called the “sit-down-be-quiet classroom dominated by desks, paper and workbooks.”

Hobson, of the state education department, said that today, as then, there’s no evidence kids are entering school any smarter — despite what parents may think or do to enhance their child’s success.

“You can play Mozart all you want, but we’re not seeing an influx of kids who are testing at the 200 IQ level. Kids are kids.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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