Should Kindergarteners Stop Finger Painting And Start Learning French?

Teachers and parents are wondering how early is too early to focus on academics in school. This week's parenting panel looks how the classroom is changing for young children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today, though, we're looking at a question that's challenging parents and teachers alike; which is, how early is too early to focus on academics in school? We wonder if the finger paint should be out and the math problems should be in, even for preschoolers. Schools that tried teaching 3-year-olds French or 4-year-olds computer coding have been around for a while - long enough to be mocked in films like "Daddy Day Care."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DADDY DAY CARE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: Now mark your books number five. Cat is to mouse as frog is to...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: Are they doing SAT prep?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #3: It's never too early to start.

MARTIN: But it's not just elite private schools that want rigorous lessons for kindergarten and preschool. These days, many public schools are turning up the academics at a younger and younger age. But some teachers and parents say this is going too far. We wanted to talk about this, so we've called Valerie Strauss. She's education writer at The Washington Post, and she's reported on this issue. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

VALERIE STRAUSS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also with us, Lynn Gatto. She's the director of elementary education at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education. Welcome to you as well. Thanks for joining us.

LYNN GATTO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Valerie, you were writing that kindergarten is the new first grade. Why do you say that?

STRAUSS: It absolutely is. And pretty soon, preschool's going to be the new first grade. For at least 10 years now, curriculum is being pushed down, partly driven by an increase in the importance of standardized tests. The idea is that kindergartners can learn how to do many things people thought they couldn't do years ago. The brain develops much earlier than we thought. The brain develops more fully than we thought. Kids can do a lot more than was ever thought. The problem is, of course, that it's gone way too far and kids, even if their brain is so developed, can't really do a lot of the things that they're being asked to do.

MARTIN: Lynn, you taught young children for more than 30 years. What is your take on this?

GATTO: I am definitely seeing classrooms asking children to do more than the curriculums required before. New York state has these modules for kindergarten and one of their modules is - the topic is kings and queens; they call it a domain. And they ask children in kindergarten to be able to identify and describe royal objects associated with the king or queen, indicate that kings and queens still exist today, but there were many more kings and queens long ago, to describe a royal family. I mean, why is this important for kindergartners to know? You know, why is it important for them to understand the vocabulary words that they're expected - disadvantages, prosperity, crown prince, reign? Well, what does this have to do with being 5 years old?

MARTIN: That's interesting. Valerie, what's your take on this?

STRAUSS: Well, what's happened is that standards-based education over the past 15, 20 - maybe even longer - years has become much more important. And standards have gone down now into the kindergarten grades and even in pre-K. And what they do is have content standards, which have specific bits of content that they want these kids to know. The problem with that - in the really early education - there's no research that shows that this is the way kids learn, that trying to teach them discrete bits of information is the way that they learn. That's not how they learn.

MARTIN: Lynn, I get the impression that you're skeptical of this.

GATTO: You know, I don't have any problem with standards. I can live with standards. What I have a problem with, and what I'm skeptical about, is the implementation of these standards. Instruction is becoming highly scripted, whole class instruction, very teacher directed. There is no room for creativity. We're not asking children to innovate; we're asking them to solve only the problems we want them to solve. There's no place for imagination. I have a problem with that.

MARTIN: But Lynn Gatto, one of the reasons that some people - activists, educators - are pushing for more academics in these early years is that they're seeing kids present to school or come to school unprepared, and that they haven't developed kind of habits of learning. If this isn't the best way to address it, what is?

GATTO: Well, I think we need to meet children where they are. And my experience is 34 years in an urban setting. And frankly, when I look at these standards, many of my colleagues and myself reach these standards and even beyond. And we did it through very engaging, meaningful kinds of instruction. For example, one of the things that I did was in fourth grade, the children came back from lunch one day just fed up with the lunch. In the end, they - using all standards and going far beyond - we scripted, created, wrote and went to an actual news studio, and created a documentary called "Lunch is Gross."

(LAUGHTER)

GATTO: GATTO: And that documentary was shown on our local PBS station. And it effected change in the school district and opened a huge conversation in this community. And every child learned to read, every child learned - wrote, they publicly spoke. I mean, they met all of the standards that they're talking about now, but it came from them and what they were interested in.

MARTIN: Valerie.

STRAUSS: There's a number of issues here. One thing is that all children don't develop at the same time. I personally - I have two daughters. One of them learned how to read by herself when she was 4; the other one couldn't really read well until she was in third grade. And when she did, she started reading Tolstoy. But if she had been in a kindergarten today and couldn't read by the time she was in first grade, she would be considered a flop. It's these kinds of pressures.

MARTIN: Well, let me ask you this, though, speaking of - we've all talked a lot about kind of the urban context and so forth. In the public debate, it's often families of color, or people advocating on their behalf, who are pushing for more academics at an early age because they feel that this is the best way to address the racial achievement gap, you know, among other things. And they kind of suspect that they feel like, you know, maybe that the more affluent or more privileged kids are getting this and that their kids are behind.

STRAUSS: Right.

MARTIN: Could you just speak to that?

STRAUSS: I can speak to that. First of all, it's not monolithic among parents of color, by any means. Kids in the wealthier schools, kids in private schools - President Obama's girls, who go to Sidwell - this isn't what they do in preschool. This isn't what they do in kindergarten. What they do is have very smart, structured play because all early childhood experts know kids learn through play. They experiment, they make order out of numbers and they stack things, and they find their own meaning in things. Assessment experts know young kids, particularly 4- or 5-year-olds, that they're are miserable testers. They cry, they yell out the answer, they want to help their friends. They throw up, they have to go to the bathroom. They say something and then they say, oh, I'm wrong. The tests that we are now...

MARTIN: Are you kidding me? That sounds like us around here.

(LAUGHTER)

STRAUSS: Well, yes, it sure sounds like...

MARTIN: It sounds like all of my colleagues in journalism. What do you mean?

STRAUSS: Exactly. No, I can attest to that, that's for sure. But we're putting high stakes on these results. And, you know, for any student, it's bad, and for 5-year-olds, it's kind of ludicrous.

MARTIN: Is there - I hear both of you, based on your experience and reporting, have a very dim view of this - kind of this trend. And so I'm interested in whether there's a reverse trend. Is there any pushback against it?

STRAUSS: There is. There's a whole opt-out movement starting in different states. New York, it's very strong because they had early Common Core tests. There have been a lot of op-eds by early childhood experts. So there's a pushback on the parent level, and there's a pushback in the expert level and on - you know, on the national level.

MARTIN: Lynn Gatto?

GATTO: Well, you're going to find now that this is really impacting middle-class parents. Their children are all reporting, you know, behavioral problems, anxiety issues. They hate school. In kindergarten - there are kindergarten children that are getting up every morning saying, I don't want to go. I think we're going to find a lot of pushback pretty quickly, now that it's hit the middle class.

MARTIN: Can I go back to the clip that we played at the beginning, which was from that movie "Daddy Day Care"? You know, the stereotype is that this is kind of the privileged doing this so that they can show off, or that their kids are kind of trophies. What I'm hearing you say is that people who are actually most privileged don't this at all.

STRAUSS: Absolutely.

GATTO: Yeah.

MARTIN: So how did this become a trend that other people had to follow?

STRAUSS: One of the reasons is that what research has shown is that middle-class and upper-class kids come in to school knowing many more words, having many more experiences than poor kids. Poor kids grow up, often, in families without access to good books. They don't hear their parents or their guardians speak to them as much. They don't have the same worldly experiences - they haven't been on field trips; they haven't been to the museum; they haven't been, you know, to Europe. They haven't been to many other places. So they come with a deficit. So the idea was, let's try to fill that deficit. For many people, you know, it's an understandable goal. That we've...

MARTIN: It's well-intentioned.

STRAUSS: ...We've got to shove this stuff into them. But it's the wrong way - the way they're doing it is not the right way to do it.

MARTIN: Lynn?

GATTO: Well, you know, that's called the deficit model and that - and it hasn't worked for a while. And it's why - especially in our city here - we have such an abysmal graduation rate - because it affects kids all the way through. I mean, if we think about it, children are coming with some form of literacy. It may not be the literacy of middle-class whites that schools are established on. But if we take what kids do know and move them from there, and honor what they have and move them to where we want them to go, then we're going to be far more successful.

MARTIN: I wonder if part of it is that parents of young children tend to be younger, you know what I mean? Families are smaller than they used to be. I mean, if you have eight kids and if you had, you know, a 2-year-old, then that's not your first time around the barn, right. But if you have one or two children and they're young and this their first experience with school, part of it is you don't know enough to argue. Could that be part of it? Is it this is a population of parents who don't necessarily feel that they know anything and so by the time they figure out that it's not a great idea, it's too late? Could that be part of it?

GATTO: I think part of it, from my own experience, is parents who have not had success or good experiences with school themselves, and they don't want to have anything to do with school.

STRAUSS: The other thing is that so many parents, you know, in today's economy are working so hard.

GATTO: Right.

STRAUSS: They don't have time to go research and figure out, you know, what is the best literacy strategy for their child. They assume the school knows what they're doing. And even when they don't, you know, schools often - they talk about wanting parent voice, but they only want a certain parent voice - many of them. So there's all kinds of issues that go into this.

MARTIN: Lynn Gatto, can I get a final thought from you?

GATTO: I really feel like rather than becoming a democratic society, we're becoming a corporate society. And really, I see corporate America driving what's happening in schools. And I don't believe school is about training future workers. I feel school is about training future democratic citizens.

MARTIN: Valerie, you want to give us a final thought?

STRAUSS: What Lynn is talking about is the corporate model in which many school reformers have based their reforms. And that is that you can run public education, which is really a civic institution - and I would argue it's the country's most important civic institution - that you can run it like a business. And so there's all kinds of things - school choice goes into this, looking at students as future workers, as instead of, as Lynn said, future citizens who understand how to operate and participate in a democracy. It's a very fundamental debate going on in public education now. And this is - you know, this is a piece of it. How do you teach young kids? Do you honor the development of young children, and recognize that they don't all do the same things at the same times? Or do you not? And this is where we are with kindergarten.

MARTIN: Valerie Strauss is education writer at The Washington Post. She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Lynn Gatto is director of elementary education at University of Rochester's Warner School of Education, with us from the studios of WXXI in Rochester, N.Y. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GATTO: Thank you.

STRAUSS: Thank you.

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