With higher expectations and accountability for early educators and parents, kindergarten curriculums have become increasingly more difficult, with a higher focus on advanced math and literacy, according to a recent study from researchers at the University of Virginia.
The researchers compared public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010 and found significant changes in kindergarten teachers' beliefs about school readiness, time spent on academic and nonacademic content, classroom organization, pedagogical approach and use of standardized assessments.
The researchers found kindergarten classrooms has become more academically centered and less focused on exploration, social skill development and play due to various reasons.
In the study, accountability pressures were found to trickle down to the early education sector due to effects from the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. The act required states to test students in reading and math from third to eighth grade. While some students are not required to test until the third grade, preparation for students to test well starts early.
However, according to Marcia Nell, a professor of early childhood education at Millersville University, "there are still many students in the third grade who are not scoring where people think they should be scoring," she said.
Christopher P. Brown, an associate professor of early childhood education at The University of Texas at Austin, noted that kindergarteners often do not test well in any areas even though some state education systems begin assessments in kindergarten. In 2010, 73 percent of kindergarteners were asked to take a standardized assessment, and one-third took one in the last month, according to the study.
Enrollment in early childhood education has become more popular than ever, with the number of students enrolling in a preschool program to prepare them for kindergarten doubling between 1990 to 2011 — skyrocketing public and private investments, the study explained.
According to Scott Latham, a co-author of the report and graduate student at Stanford University, other research he has participated in has shown there has been a large shift in the number of students who attend full-day kindergarten with 80 percent enrolled in 2010 compared to 56 percent in 1998.
"What we're seeing across the nation is a larger focus on making sure all kids are participating in school as early as possible," Brown said. "We are becoming a more globalized society, so parents want to make sure their kids are ready to do well in school so they can go to college and get a job."
Teaching beliefs and content
According to the study, between 1998 and 2011, the amount of teachers who reported to agree that children should learn to read in kindergarten had increased from 31 to 80 percent.
Substantial changes were found in time spent on music, art, dance, theater and foreign language instruction by dropping 18 percentage points in 2010. Child-selected activities had decreased by 40 percent and the daily use of textbooks had doubled for both reading and math.
The researchers also found a decline in the number of teachers covering scientific topics like dinosaurs, the solar system and ecology that kids may find interesting.
Nell stressed the need for a balance between academic and nonacademic activities for kindergarteners. Early experiences with music and art that encourage creativity and innovation are "the experiences that allow children to develop all kinds of mental processes," she said.
However, Latham argued that teachers have found ways to teach children math and reading in ways that are fun, creative and engaging.
He explained many kindergarten teachers are teaching kids about topics they already know about when they aren't challenging them with more academic content. Research has shown when kids are exposed to advanced content earlier, they learn a lot more.
Learning starts at home
According to Nell and Latham, learning for children starts far before they enter the classroom. Parents who have stimulating conversations with their kids and encourage them to read and write will foster more academically successful kids compared to kids who receive no early academic or social stimulation — causing an "experience gap" between kids before they even reach the early education phase.
"White and higher income kids have heard millions of more words than minority or lower-income kids by the time they arrive to kindergarten," Latham said.
Nell noted from the ages of 0 to 3, 90 percent of the brain is developed and development in those early years sets the stage for the rest of life.
As a result, Latham said parents now tend to value early math and literacy now more than previous generations, especially lower-income families.
There has also been more pressure from schools to have parents more involved in their child's education, according to Brown. However, it varies how much parents are involved with their children in early-learning experiences. Higher-income families generally have greater access to more resources and more time to spend encouraging learning with their children.
Nell noted there is now a large segment of helicopter parents throughout society that "hover over their children and are constantly trying to push them and protect them," she said. These parents are found to push their children toward higher academic achievement earlier on.
Method of measurement
What kindergarten teachers focus on is based on what concepts their students will encounter on assessments. Since kindergarteners are measured by their understanding of math and literacy, that is what teachers are focusing on.
"If your ultimate measure is going to be math and reading test scores down the road, then concepts like science are really going to help you," Latham said. "But kids who understand science might have a broader understanding of the world."
Latham mentioned test scores are the easiest way for the school systems to measure early knowledge because they can focus on one or two subjects.
"Right now there is a lot of push to broaden tests, but it's not easy to measure everything kids know," he said, "and testing takes time and is expensive."
Nell mentioned school systems need to take a step back and analyze what they're measuring through assessments and why that may be important.
"We are a society that loves our numbers," she said, "but there are some things that can't be measured."
For example, a children's socio-emotional development cannot be measured, which will make them more successful and sociable later in life, she said.
"Whatever measurement you're going to use, no matter if its academic, social or emotional, you have to recognize it's not really accurate in what is going on in the children's lives," Brown said.