The right kindergarten curriculum: play
Last year, as Harlem Village Academies prepared to open new elementary schools in New York, our principals visited dozens of kindergarten classrooms. The upper-income schools focused mostly on active play, interesting discussions and crafts, including papier-mache projects that delighted children for hours. In the lower-income schools we saw regimented academics, reward-and-punishment behavior systems and top-down instruction. In one South Bronx classroom, the only time children spoke during the course of three hours was to repeat drills of the sounds of letters.
Why the disparity? Many educators are placing the blame squarely on the Common Core – national learning standards recently adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia and supported by the Obama administration – and asserting that they lead to poor-quality teaching and take all the joy out of kindergarten.
One Brooklyn teacher who attempted to teach the Common Core told the New York Post that her kindergartners broke down in tears, anxious and frustrated. Early-childhood development experts such as Nancy Carlsson-Paige argue that the standards will lead to an increase in rote learning and a decrease in active play and exploration. If so, we should heed her warning.
The question, however, is whether the new standards should be blamed for poor quality instruction. It’s an important question, as the Common Core will be the reason for spending billions of dollars for new textbooks, state tests, teacher evaluation systems and more.
The standards were designed to elevate the quality of instruction in our country: to teach students to think independently, grapple with difficult texts, solve problems and explain their thinking in a clear and compelling way. This is a noble vision. But its attainment depends entirely on the execution. The authors of the Common Core write, “the standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Take vocabulary, for example. The Common Core standards state that kindergarten students should be able to “distinguish shades of meaning among verbs that describe some general action (e.g., walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.” Imagine a classroom full of 5-year-olds marching, strutting, walking and prancing for 10 minutes to different kinds of music while laughing and learning vocabulary. So while some schools might choose to teach vocabulary in a rote, boring way, clearly the standards are not to blame.
When I told one of our kindergarten teachers that there was a growing concern that the standards were ruining kindergarten, she laughed: “I didn’t know standards had that much power!”
So the standards are neither the problem nor the solution. The issue is how to use the standards to teach well. Our classrooms are less structured and less orderly, sometimes even a bit chaotic. That’s how kindergarten should feel.
Play is not a break from learning or a way to fill time for the little ones; play, imagination and discovery are how kindergartners learn.
Those of us who spend our years fighting for social justice should be as passionate about pedagogy as we are about politics. And that starts with equal access to a quality kindergarten education.
(Deborah Kenny is founder and chief executive of Harlem Village Academies and author of “Born to Rise.”)