Kindergarten Crisis Declared

Allan Appel PhotoRe-examine your curriculum from birth to third grade. Reduce your overreliance on testing. Increase creative free play.

That was the message delivered Thursday to the testing and evaluation-driven New Haven schools by the Gesell Institute of Human Development.

School officials and the mayor agreed in principal with the recommendations of Gesell Executive Director Marcy Guddemi (pictured), but said in effect, Hold your horses.

Mayor DeStefano said working on the early childhood front would have to wait at least until 2011, as a new citywide school reform plan ramps up and deals with tiering, evaluation, and tracking the success or lack thereof of New Haven’s high school graduates.

The occasion for this back and forth was a conference Thursday at the Omni Hotel marking the New Haven-based Gesell’s 60th anniversary and the release of its three-year study on early childhood education. (Click here for an article on another Gesell campaign: the importance of recess.)

Comparing reading to walking, Guddemi said, “Some kids walk at nine months, some at 15 months, and we know that early walkers are not better. Age 4 readers have no advantage over those who read [for the first time] in third grade.”

Guddemi’s institute studied 1,300 kids ages 3 to 6 and determined that “child development has not changed” in the past century.

What has changed is kindergarten, with so much academic content that it is now called the new first grade. And what used to be taught in kindergarten is now taught in pre-K.

“You can’t push developmental milestones until the brain is ready,” she warned.

Pushed kids tend to hate school. She said the study revealed pre-schoolers are being expelled at a higher rate than students in high school.

“Our nation is experiencing a crisis,” as a result, she declared.

The evidence is that the No Child Left Behind Act has failed; the achievement gap has grown; and the high school graduation rates continue to fall, she said.

Why? For Guddemi the answer is simple: the failure of early childhood education as currently being conducted from sea to sea.

One of the conference’s keynoters, Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood in College Park, Maryland, said that her original research revealed nationally that kindergarteners are devoting two to three hours a day to literacy and math, with 20 to 30 minutes of that for testing.

Only 20 to 30 minutes a day are given to free choice and play activities, which she said are the main ways small children learn.

New Haven Supervisor of Early Childhood Education Tina Mannarino (at right in photo with Gesell’s Andrea Sambrook) essentially agreed. She said the city is poised to work with Gesell’s findings, especially the notion that “early childhood” means birth through grade three or about 8 years old.

“Our system isn’t set up to look at kindergarten in its own light,” Mannarino said.

It’s just one of ten grades now that a principal has to oversee, instead of being seen as the portal to later academic achievement, she said.

After hailing Oct. 14 “Gesell Day” in the city, the mayor said that in the 1990s New Haven added many early childcare slots and made some advances regarding early childhood teacher training and certification.

The largest achievement gap between city kids and suburban counterparts on state mastery tests is in the third grade, he said. So he called it “appropriate that we return [to reviewing with more scrutiny the quality of] early childhood.”

He added that not all local educators agree about how much free time to include in schedules versus how much time for academics.

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posted by: davec on October 15, 2010  10:33am

I personally couldn’t agree more with Gesell’s.

posted by: embee on October 15, 2010  1:32pm

As a mom to a New Haven Kindergartner who spent that last two years loving his pre-school, but so far this year, hates school, I have to agree.

My son’s first question to me after his first week of school, was, “Mom, why do they have toys in the classroom if we aren’t allowed to play with them?”. 

He gets 14 - 20 pages of homework a week, math tests, etc. in KINDERGARTEN!  It has been a huge transition for us all.

posted by: David on October 16, 2010  2:15am

Greetings from Canada….

Check out my essay “When did education become a race?” at:

In the essay I quote parenting author Steve Biddulph( who was a keynote speaker at the Gender and Student Achievement Conference in Kamloops, B.C., Canada (Oct. 18-20, 2007)

According to Biddulph, full-day Kindergarten for 5-year-olds is too long, and any younger is a big mistake developmentally. In support
of Biddulph’s claim, a major review of British primary schools by Cambridge University stated the practice of allowing children to start
school at age four was found to be stressful. Yet its authors found that in some countries where students start school up to two years later, many outperform their English peers.

Biddulph says the calendar is a poor guide for when a child should start school as most boys (and some girls) are slower to develop fine-motor and language skills.

But if we followed the Finland model, children would have access to free, full-day daycare (up to age five), full-day Kindergarten (age six), and wouldn’t begin Grade 1 until age seven.

Carl HonorĂ© ( writes in “Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood” (2009): “Their [Finnish children] early childhood is spent at home or in nursery programs where play is king. When they finally do reach school, they enjoy short days, long vacations and plenty of music, art and sports.” (p. 122)

“Apart from final exams at the end of high school, Finnish kids face no standardized tests. Teachers use quizzes, and individual schools use tests to track their pupils’ progress, but the idea of cramming for SATs is as alien to Finland as a heat wave in winter. This presents a delicious irony: the nation that puts the least stress on competition and testing, that shows the least appetite for cram schools and private tutoring,
routinely tops the world in PISA’s competitive exams.” (p. 123).;=

A kindergarten teacher talks about expectations
Vancouver Sun, September 27, 2010

As a teacher, kindergarten is now not so exciting
By Kelly McMahon, September 2, 2010

posted by: Zanfirico on October 16, 2010  8:56am

Embee, are you me?!  We’re having exactly the same experience here—my son, who loved preschool and was so engaged in all its activities, is hating kindergarten so far.  He says it’s “boring,” and I’m finding it hard to disagree; all those poor kids do all day is reading, writing, and math—minimal art, minimal music, virtually no science/nature/exploration, and the only play time is half an hour for recess.  Why do we make our little kids work so darn hard when playing is their true task and the way they learn best?

posted by: Tom Burns on October 16, 2010  11:44pm

Please let them all play——K to 12—-it will work—-or should we have everyone from birth to death never play in the search of better student achievement—-are you kidding me——if we let them play and learn to socialize with each other——-they will learn at a much higher rate and level——

Test scores are for the simple and greedy—-no educator or person with an IQ over 90 believes that test scores are important in the big picture of our children’s ability to learn—as a matter of fact its a hindrance to their ability to learn—

but for the simple people, they need to take the simplest route and for the greedy (corporate takeover of schools) well we know why they need scapegoats—so they can make more money while our most needy kids lose——-for the charters don’t and wont take on these kids as a whole——-

Kudos to those charters that do—-Please let them play—-Tom

posted by: Karen on October 17, 2010  10:07am

Is there a Montessori magnet school in New Haven? If not, why not?
The Montessori philosophy is to cultivate a child’s natural desire to learn. A motivated child, no matter what age/grade level, will have the persistence to meet challenges and the desire to seek out new learning experiences.

posted by: Kathy Fite on October 18, 2010  9:22am

Gesell and his work have helped parents and children for generations. Dr. Marcy Guddemi, and the results of the Gesell study, will inform the public, parents, and educators as to what is best for the well being of the children of today and tomorrow.