Teachers say NCLB’s impact reaches K and pre-K classrooms

It's not your grandmother's kindergarten

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Most of us have fond memories of kindergarten. There were toys to play with, snacks and naps, and everybody seemed pretty relaxed.

But with the pressures generated by the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), the toys are increasingly being put away. Pressures to raise student achievement have made kindergarten – and even pre-K classrooms – more stressful places.

While school readiness remains the overarching goal, emphasis has shifted to more explicit literacy instruction. Much of what was traditionally taught in first grade is now realized in kindergarten. And high-stakes testing has reached down into pre-K, with all Head Start children now given a test, called the National Reporting System, on vocabulary, letter recognition, and early math skills.

Head Start – standards and testing

Theresa Willer-Grinkewicz, a Head Start teacher and academic coach with two decades of classroom experience in Philadelphia, sees the coming of clear standards for early childhood education as a necessary and positive development. “The curriculum gets teachers focused on what kids need to know,” she said.

But Willer-Grinkewicz also sees in its implementation many practices that she characterizes as developmentally inappropriate. She cites as examples eliminating dramatic play, children sitting in circles for more than 45 minutes, and teachers complaining that children “talk too much.”

Willer-Grinkewicz and many researchers believe that children learn through active engagement with their environment, a process that involves varied physical activity, problem solving, and negotiating with other children and adults.

Willer-Grinkewicz also echoes many critics who doubt that the National Reporting System renders an accurate assessment of preschool learning because of the great fluctuation in development at this age. The data from this test are used to evaluate the effectiveness of Head Start programs.

Speaking about her own experience in administering the test, Willer-Grinkewicz says children often don’t attend to the question but go off in directions that are of interest to them.

“You might show them a group of letters, for example, and ask them which one they recognize, and they will ask why some other letter is not there or explain that the letter C is the first letter in their name even if C is not on the list,” she explains.

Kindergarten teachers face new pressures

In an interview with Julia de Burgos School kindergarten teachers Hillary Oyer and Betsy Ortiz, joined by Liz Gomez, first grade and former kindergarten teacher, all three describe how even in kindergarten the bar is being raised for literacy instruction. Students are regularly assessed to gauge their reading levels and grouped accordingly.

“Last year we had to get the children to ‘Level C’ by the end of the year. Now we have to get them to ‘Level D,’” Ortiz observes.

This expectation for kindergartners, which teachers are hearing from administrators, goes well beyond the stated objectives in the School District’s Core Curriculum, which calls for kindergartners to be at Level B. According to the teachers, moving from Level C to D is a big jump. A typical text at Level C consists of a picture and one sentence with two or three sight words and one word where students need to use decoding strategies or the picture to figure it out. Level D involves independent decoding and more sight words, while introducing vowels, chunks, and blends.

The impetus for including more advanced material in kindergarten is the requirements of first grade. First graders must reach Level J by the end of the year, which involves reading texts with several paragraphs.

“There is no way they reach Level J without being at D by the end of kindergarten,” first grade teacher Gomez says. Given these objectives, the Core Curriculum for kindergarten is actually not rigorous enough, she maintains.

These teachers think the more ambitious literacy standards for kindergarten may be achievable for most of their students but only if other problems like absenteeism, large class sizes, and lack of pre-K experience are addressed. Gomez adds that 60 percent of her last kindergarten class was on grade level at the end of the year.

Those children who go to kindergarten certainly are entering first grade with greater literacy readiness than in the past (Gomez said about 10 percent of her first graders had no kindergarten). But in the process, kindergarten has become, for both teachers and students, more like the environment in the upper grades, with more stress and perhaps fewer “teachable moments.”

“Teachers are stressed out trying to stay on task, stay on schedule, and meet all the demands of the curriculum,” says Gomez, “so when children want to explore a topic a little bit more, you have to constantly halt that. There’s never a time to just relax and let them be kids and enjoy them.”

Ortiz added, “The kids get frustrated. Some fall asleep. There’s no more nap time.”

Better get used to it?

In the newspaper Education Week, education writer Alfie Kohn describes how many have resigned themselves to the test-driven changes: "Child development experts are nearly unanimous in denouncing the use of standardized testing with young children. One Iowa principal conceded that many teachers too consider it ‘insane’ to subject first graders to a four-and-a-half hour test. However, she adds, “They need to get used to it.”

But others defend the traditional play-based curriculum with its emphasis on problem-solving and teaching social skills as the best way to prepare children for more formal instruction and facilitate their intellectual and emotional development.

This is a debate that is bound to continue as NCLB plays out in our schools and classrooms.