A longer day, but less time for play

New kindergarten is more rigorous

August 26, 2007|By Ruma Kumar and John-John Williams IV | Ruma Kumar and John-John Williams IV,SUN REPORTERS

In a corner of her room at Manor View Elementary on Fort Meade, kindergarten teacher Laura Hobbs neatly arranged a little kitchen set, dolls, a small bed and play-food. She likes watching her students pretend, but she worries they'll be strapped for play time given the long list of academic requirements for the school year that begins this week.

She has only nine months to get her 5- and 6-year-olds to identify the sequential property of numbers using the calendar, learn the alphabet, recognize letter sounds, learn how to sort by color and number, and learn to share and play nice with one another.

The long list of expectations accompanies a transition this year by Manor View and other Maryland schools to a more academically rigorous, full-day kindergarten program, as required by state law. Under the terms of a landmark education reform bill enacted in 2002, every public school system must provide full-day instruction for kindergartners beginning this year.

Maryland was one of the first states to require the longer days for its youngsters, giving its schools five years to phase in the extended-day program. Advocates say a longer kindergarten day improves literacy and narrows the achievement gaps between minorities and low-income students and their peers. They point to evidence of success, such as Baltimore, where test scores for first- and second-graders have risen since full-day kindergarten was introduced in 215 schools in 2001.

But the initiative has been costly and has sparked criticism.

School systems have struggled to find space and money for additional teachers and classrooms as the school day grew from two-and-a-half hours to six. In some cases, officials used music rooms, art rooms and computer labs for kindergarten, displacing teachers. Others are teaching in makeshift classrooms, such as auditorium stages. Alex Szachnowicz, the district's director of facilities, said that in Anne Arundel County, some older students will be taught in portable classrooms - part of a facilities expansion to accommodate the kindergartners that cost the county schools $26 million.

All-day kindergarten has also come under fire from some researchers who warn that when a regimented kindergarten curriculum squeezes out imaginative play, learning and knowledge retention are stunted.

"Kindergarten has become the new first grade. We're so afraid that if we don't shove facts in, the children will fall forever behind, [and] schools have whipped themselves into an academic frenzy to push students to learn faster and earlier," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychology professor and author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards.

Her work highlights a philosophical split between those who say the best learning occurs when a child explores concepts through play, and policymakers who push for a structured approach with more testing to see who is and isn't learning.

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick says 5- and 6-year-olds can handle longer days and need them to be successful later.

A staunch advocate of full-day kindergarten, she cites research showing that longer school days give teachers more time to spend on reading, math and social concepts, and more individualized learning.

"The research is abundant that children who have an early beginning, one that has a lot of depth to it, will have a much better opportunity for school success," Grasmick said.

"We believe children today are ready for it," she added. "The vast majority of our children entering kindergarten have been in structured pre-K, so they are used to that kind of setting."

The focus on lessons is part of a national move, bolstered by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, to increase test scores and accountability.

Manor View Principal Anita Dempsey says kindergartners at her school face a battery of formal and informal tests to determine their strengths and weaknesses, are grouped according to their needs and then receive "laser-like instruction."

In other districts, including Harford County, such instruction, along with six hours of class, has accelerated learning. What's taught in first and second grade is changing because students are learning concepts sooner. Some kindergartners in Harford are learning to count to as high as 120, instead of 25.

"Kindergarten isn't where you come and play any more. It's where you get students ready to read," said Dempsey.

This worries some child development experts who say it doesn't leave enough room for make-believe play that helps children grasp critical social and language concepts.

"Not all children develop at the same rate or pace, so ... some children learn to read at 5, and others don't learn until they're 7," said Ed Miller, co-director of programs at the Alliance for Childhood, a College Park-based advocacy group.

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