It is 11:30 a.m. on Monday, and Mrs. Wampler is squeezing in one more math lesson before her morning kindergarten class leaves for the day: "If you have three bunnies and three apples, and there is an apple to go with each bunny, then they are...equal." It's hard to tell whether her 25 pint-size students are still with her. They have been busy all morning working on language skills, word recognition, counting, sets, days of the week and primary colors, in addition to trying to complete an art project and work on assorted social skills, such as raising one's hand before speaking--and all in 2 1/2 hrs. Debbie Wampler, beloved kindergarten teacher for 20 years at Wyngate Elementary School in Bethesda, Md., says she regrets that her class seems so hurried, "but there just isn't enough time to cover everything we need to cover." Her local school district has instigated a "reading initiative" as a way to prod the kindergartners to read by the end of the year, and Wampler is feeling the heat. "Some kids begin to click with reading," she says, "but it's not happening with every kid."
Wampler and her students illustrate the latest math concept in elementary education: kindergarten = first grade. Kindergarten--so fondly remembered by baby boomers for show-and-tell and building blocks--has changed. Standardized curriculum and testing in primary schools are causing what educators call "push-down" academics. The need to perform well on tests filters down, landing on the youngest learners. As a result, kindergartners spend less time on social skills while interacting with one another in the "dress-up corner" or building wood-block skyscrapers. They spend more time sitting still, listening to the teacher and drilling on the basics. The immediate results of early reading and writing initiatives may please some parents and school administrators, but teachers and childhood-development experts say they are worried about the children.
Today more parents (especially affluent ones) are delaying the start of school to give their children an extra year of pre-school. This trend--known as "redshirting," after the practice of holding back freshman college athletes--is widening the developmental and age gaps among the students. A "typical" kindergarten class contains kids ages 4 to 6 whose level of development varies widely. Some barely know their letters, while others are fairly fluent readers. Sue Bredekamp, editor of a widely used guide for teachers of young children, says, "What teachers tell us is that expectations for kindergartners have become more standardized, while the pool of kids in kindergarten has become more diverse. Some have been in day care and other social situations since they were six months old, while others are away from home and in school for the first time."