Race to the finish

Published by Lori Pickert on May 4, 2009 at 02:07 PM

From Kindergarten Cram in the New York Times:

Instead of digging in sandboxes, today’s kindergartners prepare for a life of multiple-choice boxes by plowing through standardized tests with cuddly names like Dibels (pronounced “dibbles”), a series of early-literacy measures administered to millions of kids; or toiling over reading curricula like Open Court — which features assessments every six weeks.

According to “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” a report recently released by the Alliance for Childhood, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, all that testing is wasted: it neither predicts nor improves young children’s educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands, like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing that truly is vital to their future success: play.


Jean Piaget famously referred to “the American question,” which arose when he lectured in this country: how, his audiences wanted to know, could a child’s development be sped up? The better question may be: Why are we so hellbent on doing so?

(Hat tip: Courtney!)

From “The Dangers of Privilege and College Admission”, an editorial by college consultant William Caskey in the Chicago Tribune:

As they near college, we drive exhausted teens toward milestones of success ruled by grades, standardized test scores, and the ultimate mark of achievement these days: a brand-name school. Spent and busy parents expect me, their college consultant, to nag, drag, and, if necessary, carry their reluctant, exhausted, and often passionless kids toward the finish line and a “top-tier” college. When I ask what would happen if their kids were left alone to complete this process without parental fuel driving them, they are often confused by my question.

I see many teens of means with few interests and little idea how to pursue those mild passions they do have. Ironically, many are successful academically. Rarely, however, is their success driven by a quest for knowledge. Rather, they tie academic achievement to eventual financial success.

Is there, as Ghandi said, more to life than increasing its speed?


Comment by Amy on May 4, 2009 at 04:54 PM

This is why, no matter what we decide later on, no kindergarten is a given. Especially for the rambunctious little boy. Argh, what a disaster that would be...

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 4, 2009 at 05:38 PM

i think there’s this idea that if you make *one false step* toward the beginning — the wrong preschool, starting school too *early* or too *late*, etc. — then they’ll *never catch up*.

another quote from william caskey’s editorial: We ... began stimulating our babies in utero, fearing our unborn children would fall behind other young nippers soaking up Mozart in the womb. As our children grow, vigorous parental oversight becomes more extreme. We occasionally recognize the absurdity of our frenzied involvement, but we also worry that a laissez-faire attitude will result in our children being left a few ladder rungs behind. ... [We] continually evaluate the paths taken by other families, ensuring that their children are offered the same experiences and privileges. We seize opportunities for our kids rather than teach them how to seize their own.”

we have really internalized this way of looking at life — like it is a race from cradle to mcmansion (and we stop imagining there .. no need to think about what comes next!). it’s not like that in every culture, but it certainly is here.

this resonates:

“We seize opportunities for our kids rather than teach them how to seize their own.”

Comment by Christina on May 4, 2009 at 05:38 PM

That's a great article . . . It hits on so many of the reasons we decided to homeschool. There was, however, one truth that hit a nerve:

"I wonder how far I’m willing to go in my commitment to the cause: would I embrace the example of Finland — whose students consistently come out on top in international assessments — and delay formal reading instruction until age 7? Could I stick with that position when other second graders were gobbling up “War and Peace” — or at least the third Harry Potter book?"

Sometimes in my drive to prove to myself and family/friends that homeschooling truly IS good for the kids, I feel the need to show that they are "performing" at or above the level of other children their age. The average kindergartener can read at that level? Well my kids can read at THIS level. And so forth. Of course, I realize this is a manifestation of my own insecurities. Sigh. Luckily, it doesn't overwhelm me, and I certainly hope it doesn't play a part in what or how we learn . . . or does it? Hard to tell.

Comment by Sally on May 4, 2009 at 05:45 PM

Interesting post! Last Thursday I invited a friend of my son to join us for our outing at the zoo. The mother wouldn't let him go because it would "ruin" his perfect attendance record. The friend is in kindergarten 2 hours a day.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 4, 2009 at 08:13 PM

christina, yes — i think a lot of homeschoolers feel that way!

working with a lot of kids when i was running my private school gave me a very solid feel for the wide range of normal — i could look at a 5yo who absolutely positively had zero interest in reading and writing and know that he was fine and would dive in when he was ready. and he did. and he was fine. i think it’s much harder for parents who don’t have experience with a *lot* of kids; plus, we all want our kids to be exceptional, right? or — i mean — we *know* our kids are exceptional. :^)

and homeschoolers sometimes have a chip on their shoulder due to doubting friends and family — they have something to prove!

sally — oh. my. goodness. that is crazy!

i just went through my bloglines and a lot of people wrote about this article today. one thing i commented on a blog was, re: the amt of time for free play these kids have per day — a lot of them don’t have free play time *after* school either. they are in after-school programs, daycare, and adult-organized activities (not to mention doing homework, even in kindergarten). add in meals, commuting, errands, and bedtime routines, and when *do* kids *ever* get a chance to really play anymore?

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 4, 2009 at 08:49 PM

ugh. just ugh.

This is exactly why we stepped off the treadmill with Annika and are putting Gunnar in an arts-oriented school, which is where his interests lie. Having let my oldest child buy into this (and having bought into it myself for too much of the time), I'm determined to do it differently now.

There was an article in our local paper today about all-day kindergarten funding (we're having a schools funding crisis like most states) and the whole focus of the article was on the demands and expectations for kindergarteners and how they cannot possibly meet them in half day kindergarten. Seriously. 5 year old kids. I was nauseous by the time I finished reading. I'll send you a link - it says so much about priorities and how testing and benchmarks are driving everything.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 4, 2009 at 08:57 PM

stepping off the treadmill is the perfect metaphor — i kept imagining a wild race that just went on and on.

*having bought into it myself* — ahhhhhhhh, see, i don’t think of this part of it, but i *did* and that’s why i hesitated as i made my choices. like hiccuping and thinking — wait, but this isn’t what i’m “supposed” to do…

yes, send me the link re: full-day K. here is what i have been told about the full-day K program in our town — it’s *better* because then kids are able to have art and music. because they strip those things out of half-day K — there just isn’t enough time to do the *important* stuff and still have time for the “specials”.


Comment by Brynn on May 4, 2009 at 09:42 PM

Oh, this report is so important. I have been passing it along to others. Glad you mentioned it here!

Comment by Christina on May 4, 2009 at 11:12 PM

I would be interested in reading that article on full-day kindergarten as well. When we moved to Kentucky, a couple of women told me they had opted out of full-day--meaning they had gone to the principals of their schools and explained that they only wanted half-day for their children and had been told that was fine. The problem, they discovered, was exactly what you mentioned Lori, namely that their children spent four hours drilling and testing in the morning and then missed all the afternoon goodies, i.e., art, music, library time, recess, parties, etc. (actually, I'm not sure kids do recess any more).

It's so important to be reminded of the "play" factor though. The kids spend a good part of the day "playing," but often I find myself wondering if we are *doing enough* as homeschoolers. I have to remind myself, "They are only 5 and 3 for goodness sake! They SHOULD be playing! Playing is part of school. The fun things are part of school. They ARE school."

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 5, 2009 at 12:34 AM

thank you, brynn — i agree!

christina — interesting! i know some kids don’t get recess anymore. i read susan o’hanian’s book “whatever happened to recess…” and she talks about schools built for K-3rd that didn’t even have playgrounds — because learning is such serious business now, there’s no time for play.

playing is learning and it is how young children learn, so they should be playing most of the time. children in my preschool were age 3 to 5 (mixed-age class) and were free to play the entire time they were in school, but their teachers were also working to support their hands-on investigation of things that interested them. investigation that was generously, spontaneously mixed with lots and lots of play. *that*, to me, is what learning should look like for young children. :^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 5, 2009 at 01:35 AM
Comment by Lori Pickert on May 5, 2009 at 01:54 AM

thank you, sarah

of course, working parents want full-day K because it means they only have to pay for after-school care rather than full daycare. charging *tuition* for full-day K seems to wreck that.

i srsly need to share the list that my local paper prints of what kids are supposed to know before they *enter* kindergarten — it includes counting to 100 (whereas this article says K students will learn to count to 20 *in K*!) and knowing their alphabet, among other things.

i am getting really cynical about this subject.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 5, 2009 at 02:27 AM

I particularly liked how they thought it was okay for high income districts to double dip on full day kindergarten - collect state funding *and* charge parents so they could backfill other stuff. That's really going to make families feel good about their school choices.

Comment by Dawn on May 5, 2009 at 03:17 AM

This is the reason Fionna only spent a few months in school. She was overwhelmed by all of the "structure" and her biggest complaint was that she never got to just play. Even the short time they spent outside they were restricted to asphalt! A very small area with 60 kids running around. It drove her crazy!

Chistina.. my kids are also 5 and 3... they "play" all day. Sometimes I think I need more structure for them but I realize that they are learning so much interacting with eachother, with me, with nature. I am amazed by the things they know right now... without formal instruction. We do have a little bit of a routine ... that includes nature walks, art, story time, snacks, etc... but it's very organic and flexible and includes lots and lots of time for unstructured play! You are so right and I have to remind myself too... they are 5 and 3!

Thanks Lori for keeping me up to date on what is going on out there... Sometimes it is too easy to keep the news at bay and live in this little world! :)

Comment by Theresa on May 5, 2009 at 03:35 AM

This kind of stuff just makes me want to cry. Poor children.

Comment by se7en on May 5, 2009 at 07:58 AM

Lovely post!!! I often wonder why there is such a rush for kids to get ahead in the scheme of things every study has shown that early intervention "does not a genius make" and would you really want your child to be a world leader in anything: Top sports stars, top musicians and top top top people tend not to have the most content lives - so why is "everybody" striving for this... I will be quite content to have happy mediocre kids and by that I mean middle of the road kids noticing life around them and taking the time to smell the roses.

That being said it never ceases to amaze me that so many people drop their toddlers off at "very important school" before they get to work and then pick them up after an afternoon of two or three activities, long after they have stopped for coffee and done a bit of relaxing shopping... Their toddlers have longer work days than they do - most adults couldn't survive the rigors. No wonder kids don't have time to play and get creative anymore.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 5, 2009 at 03:02 PM

sarah — also, if you can’t afford to pay for full-day K, then i guess you can’t afford art and music and free play, if those are the things that are cut from full-day K to make a half-day program. so once again, only the most privileged get art and music.

there was a story in susan o’hanian’s book about kids who weren’t doing well enough on their practice tests having to receive extra instruction whereas kids who *did* do well were allowed to go to recess.

dawn, thank you!

theresa, me too :(

se7en, yes, i really wonder — if parents were given the choice (and they ARE): happiness or achievement? which would they choose? they often seem to prioritize this idea of achievement over day-to-day happiness for their children and themselves.

Comment by Amy on May 5, 2009 at 03:20 PM

Oh, full-day K. Oh how that gets me going. Also those "tests" to get into kindergarten. When I was in kindergarten (half day, of course) we counted each morning the number of days we'd been in school. Every day we asked our teacher if we could count to 100, and every day she said no, not until the 100th day of school. Then one day we had a substitute, and he gladly let us count to 100. The next day, our regular teacher seemed angry when we gleefully told her we'd counted to 100. And now you say children have to count to 100 BEFORE kindergarten. I wonder what my control-freak kindergarten teacher thinks of that? ;)

I do tend to worry if my kids are keeping up, sort of, but on the other hand, I think there's so much value in playing. I also want them to know how to amuse themselves, and with such a structured day, how do kids learn that? When we began Enki in August, I tried to stick to a rhythm as suggested, and after a couple of weeks I was horrified that my children seemed to have forgotten how to amuse themselves. They began looking to me to lead every moment, and I hated it. I can just imagine how much worse it is when a child spends the day in school.

Our district still has half day kindergarten, but the charter school and the neighboring districts have full day. Much of that is driven by, as you said, practicalities of having working parents and the fact that kindergarten is the new first grade. (Or is it the new second grade now?)

Oh and I CAN'T STAND the playground talk about how very young children are progressing. Holy cow, the day I heard the mother of a 2yo tell me that her son was doing "so well with his puzzles" as if puzzles were a task to be checked off...I nearly gagged. And of course that was the least of it. Around here talk of preschool starts at 2, with the race to get kids out of diapers by 3 so they can go, with no regard to whether or not the child is ready to be either toilet trained OR in preschool. God forbid we let a 3yo pee in a diaper and play with his toes in the sandbox. He might not get into Harvard. Luckily, I don't care if my kids to go to Harvard. Quite frankly, Harvard doesn't impress me anyway. ;)


Comment by Lori Pickert on May 5, 2009 at 04:18 PM

amy, we saw a lot of kids like that in our after-school program — the boy who laid his head down on the table in utter dismay because we gave him art supplies instead of a coloring book .. the kids who suddenly had access to all these incredible, open-ended materials and said “but what do we do?” .. the girl who snarled at our art teacher “just tell me what to do so i can do it and be done.”

it wasn’t just that they had lost the ability to amuse themselves or have their own ideas — they were absolutely trained to do what someone else said, and they felt lost without it!

on the up side, those kids could usually get back their playing/thinking/creating skills if they were nurtured along and encouraged. but i’ll never forget those strong reactions — like they were junkies looking for a fix.

gah, i agree with you completely re: puzzles as a developmental milestone to be bragged about … and the potty training, too! i think the kid in the sandbox is MORE likely to go to harvard, because his brain is being allowed to do what it’s supposed to do (relax, play, listen, learn, explore) and because his parents are evidently mellow and confident enough to let him develop at his own pace!

Comment by susan on May 5, 2009 at 04:25 PM

Lori, thank you for such a great post! It's so validating, so affirming of what I believe and feels right to me.

Here's a question that's a little off this particular topic, but I thought you might have a good answer for me! We are slowly setting up a studio space and I'm trying to get some good art supplies for my boys - ages 5 and almost 4 years. I've been thinking I'd like to have an easel since our younger son LOVES using the easel at preschool where they only have one and he just waits and waits for a turn at it. Do you have any suggestions of where to buy a good, sturdy easel for kids? I'd prefer one that is two sided (not a chalkboard on one side) and that uses clips to attach the paper on each side instead of a roll of paper. I've search on the internet a little, but haven't seen anything I love yet. My husband is a woodworker so making one is also an option -- maybe you know of plans?

Thanks so much for your help!


Comment by Christina on May 5, 2009 at 07:12 PM

I just read the article that Sarah posted on full-day K. Oh. My. Gosh. There's so much wrong with it, I hardly know where to begin.

<i>"The standards for kindergarten are so extensive you need a full day to really help all children," said Janet Sullivan, Washington Elementary School District's assistant superintendent for academic services. Kindergarten students are tasked with knowing basic addition and subtraction and should be able to count to 20. They're also taught basic phonics skills and how to determine if words rhyme, among other skills."</i>

Is THAT all Kindergarteners need to know?? Psst . . . I've got a little secret . . . if you just spent 30 minutes a day with your children reading books and playing games, they would be able to do all those things BEFORE reaching K.

Like others have already said, the fact is that full-day K is just glorified day-care. This article makes that glaringly clear. I read last year that they are trying to extend the school day to 4:00 p.m. Don't tell me that's more for the kids than the parents. Seven is right, these kids have longer workdays than their parents.

Comment by Cathy T on May 5, 2009 at 09:06 PM

I hope my kids are learning to seize opportunities - sometimes I really wish they'd try something new but then my husband will help me to see that the opportunity that I see for them is really for me or that they just aren't ready for it. I think of how one son wants to be a volunteer at the museum once a week all summer. He filled out the paperwork by himself, got someone to write a letter of reference, and I should have been happy with just that. But I saw that a local boat club had $1 registration fees for kids and would give them free sailing lessons and I tried to encourage him to do that too. He has refused and his dad said that when he was 15 he wouldn't have wanted to do it either - just too many new things to try at once. ahhh. The lightbulb goes on. I wish it had gone on BEFORE I had pushed though...

Seize the day...

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 5, 2009 at 10:24 PM

christina, i know, i know. again, back when i owned the school, parents (and teachers — we had lots of visiting teachers) couldn’t believe we didn’t do “letter of the week” and still all our *preschool* students knew the alphabet by the second month.

they are *so concerned* with teaching in a measurable way and then measuring that they have to throw out natural, holistic learning — learning that is easy, fun, and blended seamlessly with play and exploration. they *can’t* learn that way, because they have to be following that script every day proving everyone was given everything in equal doses at regular intervals.

i can’t say that full-day K is glorified daycare — frankly, daycare would be better if the kids were allowed to play all day. beautiful, exciting, engaging schools for young children exist — programs that allow free play and encourage children to explore their interests are possible! so why are they rare as hens’ teeth?

cathy, so true — if we want kids to learn to seize their own opportunities we have to let them, one, have the space to do it (and not be suggesting and pointing and getting excited in their place) and, two, we have to remember they are going to seize the opportunities that appeal to *them*!

my 12yo reminds me regularly that his idea of awesome does not always (ever?) match mine. ;^)

Comment by Crystal on May 6, 2009 at 02:46 PM

Oh! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

My son's teacher has been really pushing summer school for him and we have plans to go to my Moms for 4 weeks so summer schol is not an option. He is 6 and in K. Ugh! Really? Summer school for a 6 year old? I have been feeling like he is too slow and will have such a hard time in 1st grade. He does not know how to count to 100 or all his 'popcorn words' as all 1st graders in this system are suposed to know. In my gut I feel like he will be fine. He is bright and passionate and creative but you cannot 'test' for those qualities.

I really need to read this. Thank you again.

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 6, 2009 at 07:50 PM

crystal, you are welcome — i hope you enjoy your summer and everything works out for all of you!

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 7, 2009 at 12:32 AM

And it continues. More tests. Keep the old and bring in the new. Sigh.


Comment by Barbara in NC on May 7, 2009 at 01:35 AM

LOL, I'm thankful for full-day K, which is almost universal here.

Why? Because that's what pushed me over the hump to decide to homeschool. Whatever the potential pros and cons might be, it was clear to me that the sheer QUANTITY of kindergarten was too much. With that as a deal-breaker, we decided to homeschool and now we're hooked.

What I'm increasingly struck by is that it's not just preschoolers and kindergarteners who need to play. My older dd is almost 8 and she still plays most of the time. She gets in grooves where she settles into projects that we would recognize as work, but mostly she plays and plays and plays. Watching her, I am more and more convinced that this is the most developmentally appropriate way for her to learn and grow and mature. And play-based learning isn't even up for discussion for kids her age.

On an unrelated note, the smart, kind and well-intentioned woman I work for was asking me about homeschooling, and among other things asked me how I would be sure that she learned what she needed to know so she could go to college. Um, she's SEVEN. She loves to read and think and create. I'm not too worried about college right now....

Comment by Susana on May 7, 2009 at 08:31 PM

This is such a great place to enjoy my big mug of green tea; I love stopping by here and absorbing the ongoing discussions+comments. Yay Lori and Camp Creek Community!

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 7, 2009 at 10:10 PM

barbara, that made me laugh. :D yay for full-day K!

so so so so true re: 8yos needing to play — that reminds me of this quote, which i’ve had here on the blog before:

What happens to the creative house, store, and restaurant players of childhood in middle school? Children who invented new worlds, objects, and environments and set up everything as a great display at home come to school and say they have no ideas. It is these home players — the ones who can design all spaces, animate all objects, and design any new project — who need support. — George Szekely

that question re: “how can you be sure she’ll learn what she needs to know?” — i always want to turn that around and ask the parent of the public school student, how do YOU know that YOUR child will learn what s/he needs to know? are you familiar with the curriculum your school is using? does it match what you want your child to learn? is it custom fit to YOUR child? because that’s what *I* have — a custom-fit, tailor-made curriculum that matches exactly what *i* think my child needs to learn.

and then a karate chop — hi-YA. ;D

susana — thank you so much — that makes my day! :^D)

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 8, 2009 at 01:43 AM

susan, i’m sorry, i totally missed your comment! :^P

thank you so much for your kind words!

that is wonderful news about making a studio space. (one of my favorite things — having it *and* making it.)

i’ve bought easels at ikea and at sam’s club .. they were inexpensive and sturdy enough for school use. i’m still using one i bought at sam’s club almost 10 years ago. i agree it’s important to make sure it’s two-sided .. so two children can both paint at the same time *or* one child can switch to the other side while the first painting dries. if the second side is chalkboard or whiteboard, you can just use clips to attach the paper.

i buy easel paper in pads at staples — they have the best price i’ve found, and you can become a staples member and get cash back! :^)

i’m afraid i don’t know of any plans, but if you can find them, they would be a great way to go! one thing i love about our easel — it has a shelf across where you can put art supplies — not just the usually-flimsy plastic paint-cup-holding shelf across one side.

good luck with your studio and let me know how it goes!

Comment by Eren on May 20, 2009 at 01:17 AM

Ugh! Im with Sarah. And now I have a pit in my stomach. This is why I am pulling to hard to hs. Last year kindy was really rough. We did 1/2 day, which I preferred. But then the switch to 1st grade was a rough one as well. Here in VA they have 30 min of PE, which they organize by units. Jump rope unit, sports, etc. They are doing yoga now...which I think is kind of fun. But its all organized and wait in line, etc. Then they tack on another 15 min of free-play where they can run around the empty playground. There is a small play "gym" thing in the center but 1st graders can't play on the monkey bars...they might get hurt. And now my boys have been coming home telling me that their classes have been getting their 15 min. of free play taken away because of talking too much or whatever the bad behavior might be...Ugh again!

As a mother of boys I am extremely frustrated with this all and want to scream right now.

Lord let us have a good summer "pracitcing" so I can do this for real in the Fall.

Comment by Eren on May 20, 2009 at 01:28 AM

Crystal - I just read your comment and had to share with you one thing. I have twins, boys in 1st grade. We go to public school as of right now. But here is the deal. One of my boys was recommended for summer school this summer. He is reading at a level 6, whatever that is, but should be at a 12. He is a scanner (like his mama). He does not read ever word, word for word. But can always tell you what the story is about perfectly. But according to this test, if you skip a word or say "a" instead of "the" he gets held at that level. This is the same kid who sounded out the word "philosophy" last week. I told them that mandatory summer school was not an option and that we would not be enrolling him.

Then just yesterday I got a letter from the gifted department saying that he tested in the 95% in non verbal communication and would be in the gifted classroom next year if we decide to send him. I had to laugh.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on May 21, 2009 at 12:24 AM

Eren - we had that with Gunnar. He was testing in the 19th percentile in reading fluency, but when they gave the gifted exam to all the kids (they do this in early 3rd grade), he tested as gifted in math and in non-verbal. He scored in the 92nd percentile in verbal. Why? Because he has dyslexia and they read the gifted exam aloud to all of the kids so they can accurately assess whatever they're assessing. When I pointed out the differences in the scores, they finally started paying attention to what he needed. Of course, once he "met" standards, they decided that he didn't have a problem anymore and dropped the services. Now his teacher is told to just do the same thing with him as with the other kids and "eventually he'll get it." *thunks head on desk*

Moral of the story? Test scores are only useful if they point out serious discrepancies that can call attention to a real learning issue. However, if the school's only goal is to get them to pass the test and not to meaningfully address the underlying issue or to make sure that mastery has really happened, then it's still pointless. Because the underlying issue isn't going away that easily.

Man, I wish Gunnar would just give in to homeschooling. My life would be so less stressful. But, then I'd have to find something new to bitch about and this is so very convenient - what with all the ammunition they give me. ;)

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 22, 2009 at 12:32 AM

eren, oh my, i'm so sorry you had to go through that. i would think (hope?) that your son's teacher would have had a *sense* of how he was doing -- that he was *fine* and did not need summer school. it really sounds as though they didn't care whether he had good comprehension -- they simply wanted him to do it their way. ugh.

coming back with the gifted diagnosis is like adding insult to injury!

sarah, ohhhhhh, how frustrating. that situation of "okay, he's meeting requirements, let's drop his services" is one i've heard again and again.

i agree with you completely about test scores! if the schools are simply focused on *their* passing score and not analyzing the data to figure out what kids need...

Comment by Eren on May 22, 2009 at 12:34 AM

He, he Sarah...you make me laugh lady!

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