How can teachers bring common sense and compassion to education policy?

The research is clear. Academic training in kindergarten has no long-term benefit. In fact, it may cause long-term harm.

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

The research is clear. Academic training in kindergarten has no long-term benefit. In fact, it may cause long-term harm. It does not reduce the education gap between the rich and the poor, which is the usual reason offered for such training. It slightly increases academic test-scores in first grade, but by third grade the benefit is lost and, according to some of the best studies, by fourth grade those subjected to academic kindergartens are doing worse—academically as well as socially and emotionally—than those who were in play-based kindergartens (for some of the evidence, see here).

The views of kindergarten teachers are also clear (see here). I have spoken at many early education conferences over the past several years, and at each one I heard from teachers about unhappy little children who are being deprived of play and forced to do increasing amounts of “seat work.” I also hear regularly from kindergarten teachers who are resigning or taking early retirement because they see that the policies they are forced to enforce are harming children. We are losing our best teachers because they are the ones who are most likely to see what is happening and least likely to tolerate it.

So why do we continue on this trend of depriving little children of play and joyful group activities, from which they learn so much, and subjecting them ever more to meaningless, shallow “academic work,” from which they learn so little? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that the politicians who make education policy and many of the administrators who enforce it know little about children or learning, and don’t pay attention to the two groups of people who do: those who conduct research on child development, and the teachers who see directly how the policies affect children.

There was a time when teachers could use their experience, judgment, and common sense to vary what they did in the classroom to respond to children’s varying individual needs. But now teachers are increasingly seen as tools of the administration, to carry out the policies that constitute the latest fad—so many hours of this and of that, and everything the same for every child regardless of the child’s interests and dispositions. Children are data points, not individuals. This is “No Child Left Behind,” “Common Core,” and, heaven forbid, “Race to the Top.”

Race to the Top; what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? Racing toward what? The top? The top of what? Education is not a race, it's an amble. Real education only occurs when everyone is ambling along their own path.

I have often wondered what would happen if the teachers who can see what is happening would stand up and protest, not individually, but together, as a united force. I was fascinated, therefore, to read this past June about the united stand taken that month by kindergarten teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, not far from my home. Twenty-seven of the 34 public school kindergarten teachers in Brookline signed a letter that they read aloud at a meeting of the Brookline School Committee.

Here, in part, is what the letter said (for the full letter, see here):

"We have dedicated our careers to teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, and we see that some current practices are leaving an everlasting negative impact on our students’ social-emotional well-being. Therefore, we are here tonight to share with you our concerns about a new kind of gap that is emerging in Brookline Kindergarten. It is a "reality gap"—a gap between the way research shows that young children learn best and the curriculum the district requires us to teach. It is a reality gap between Brookline educational values and what is actually happening to children in our classrooms.

“We have all worked with our literacy coaches and specialists to implement the various reading and writing lessons with fidelity. However, block scheduling—90-minute reading and writing blocks—comes at the expense of thematic units, play-based learning, and social-emotional opportunities.

“We are seeing the effects of this loss. We see many of our Kindergartners struggle with anxiety about school because they know they are expected to read … It is now common to hear their little voices announce to us, "I don’t know how to read, I hate reading, I hate school, I am not good at anything." This is our greatest concern.

“Current academic pressures on 5- and 6-year-olds are contributing to increasing challenges with our kindergartners ability to self-regulate, to be independent and creative … Study after study has shown that young children need time to play, but in Brookline, because of academic demands, time for play-based learning has been shortened and, on some days, eliminated entirely. As Kindergarten teachers, we know that play is not frivolous; it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function, which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. It helps children learn to persevere, increase attention and navigate emotions.

“Young children are also meant to move around and explore. Many children who sit for long periods of time experience frustration, muscle cramps, and disruptive behaviors. We have seen an increase in the number of children diagnosed with ADHD and behavior issues within our schools and we know why this is happening. Yet, we are doing things that will only exacerbate the problem rather than make it better.

“We are not advancing equity. As mentioned with play and social-emotional development, the district is asking us to teach our children in ways that reduce equity in the classroom. We are told that everything has to be the same. Please think about what ‘the same’ means. It is not uniquely tailored to maximize the joy and learning for every single child. Standardization is not equity.

“Where once teachers were trusted to use their judgment and teach to the needs of each unique class, now we are directed to follow set curricula from textbooks. We are being given directives, not empowerment for our students.

“Let’s envision our children being excited to come to school each day, developing a deep love of learning, having confidence in their abilities as learners, strengthening social-emotional skills, creating deep relationships with peers and teachers, and being part of a community of learners. Imagine a classroom where teachers are spending time working directly with students, forming trusting relationships, and engaging in meaningful teaching experiences that address students’ needs as a whole.

“Imagine a future where the educational power of play is returned to Brookline Kindergarten. There is no arguing that our students learn best through play and real experiences that allow them to explore and make connections, build some background knowledge, and develop problem solving skills. The play can be purposeful (teacher guided), but there also needs to be time for children to explore freely without teacher direction. This is essential in the development of curiosity, and the ability to follow an idea or a project through. This is the bedrock of Kindergarten practice. In fact, it is the bedrock of lifelong learning

“Brookline Kindergarten can be a place where children explore relationships with others in order to develop a sense of empathy. It can be a place where they master amicable and respectful dialogue with their peers. It can be a place where they learn how to justify their own ideas and solve problems. Imagine a classroom where children learn how to fail, so they can try again and find their way.

“We ask you to envision with us a future in which our Kindergartners are deeply engaged in fun, integrated content areas. Envision with us classrooms where learning to read is fun, purposeful engaging and organic. We ask you to imagine Brookline Kindergarten classrooms where teachers are trusted to use their judgment about what’s best for each class. Imagine a future where love of learning, not test-based performance, returns to the heart of our children’s very first educational experiences.”

The letter was accompanied by a petition of support signed by more than 500 Brookline parents. It garnered a considerable amount of publicity, nationally as well as locally, including this article in The Washington Post. Did it have an effect?

A new school year is now underway, and I wondered if much has changed in Brookline kindergartens. So, I called Benjamin Kelley, co-president of the Brookline Parents Organization and a supporter of the teachers’ protest. He told me that there have been some small improvements in some of the schools, but all in all little has changed. A request for a full hour of recess every day in kindergarten was turned down. Block academic scheduling still occurs. The Brookline school superintendent resigned suddenly over the summer, though it is not clear that the teachers’ protest had anything to do with it. Currently, there is an interim superintendent while they search for a replacement.

Maybe serious change will come after a new superintendent is hired? Or maybe not. If not, then I hope the kindergarten teachers will have the courage to do more than write a letter. How about a strike? A strike not for higher pay or other such benefits, but for the welfare of the children and our nation’s future.


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