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'Readiness' Goal Seen Producing Harmful Policies

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A group of early-childhood educators has drafted a strongly worded condemnation of the use of transitional programs, delayed school entry, and repetition of kindergarten for children considered unready for school.

The action last month by the National Association of Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education came in response to the adoption by several districts nationwide of policies that defer or add an extra year to early schooling as a means of ensuring that 5-year-olds are prepared to meet the often rigorous academic standards imposed by education reforms.

In a draft statement circulated at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children here, the state specialists' group argues that heightened standards of school "readiness" are inappropriate, and that the practices they have spawned may be counterproductive.

The 48-member association concludes that children are placed in "double jeopardy when they are denied, on highly questionable premises, the same educational opportunities as their peers."

The group says in the document that children "do not benefit from the traditional form of retention or its new guise as delayed-entry or extra-year classes."

Moreover, such policies can have unintended negative consequences, they maintain, such as classifying children as failures at an early age; segregating them along racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines; and widening disparities in the age distribution and ability levels of students entering the 1st grade.

"The educational community can no longer afford to ignore the consequences of polices and practices which assign the burden of responsibility to the child, rather than the program; place the child at risk of failure, apathy toward school, and demoralization; and fail to contribute to the quality of early-childhood education," the statement says. Harriet A. Egertson, outgoing president of the state specialists' group and an early-childhood-education consultant for the Nebraska education department, said the document was intended as a "catalyst" for policy changes nationwide. She said a final draft would be distributed to state education officials and other national groups later this year.

Policies Misdirected

The statement says that most of the "questionable" entry and placement practices for kindergarten spring from well-intentioned but misdirected efforts to help children cope with "an increasingly inappropriate curriculum."

It attributes the current push for earlier academic rigor to such factors as education reform, children's exposure to public television and preschools, and "overzealous" parents' insistence that children learn to read in kindergarten.

Karen Gernhardt, a kindergarten teacher at the Stony Creek Elementary School in Noblesville, Ind., said at the conference here that districts have mistakenly focused programs on children who have already learned letters, numbers, and other skills before entering school.

The problem, she said, is "not that large numbers of kids aren't ready, but that many kids are over-ready." She added that young children now being labeled as slow learners would have been considered normal by earlier standards.

Call for Restructuring

In its draft statement, the state early-childhood group recommends that, in lieu of special programs and policies to aid children ill equipped for the regular curriculum, kindergartens be restructured to accommodate a greater diversity of student needs.

Deborah G. Murphy, director of early-childhood education for the Missouri education department, said that when schools adopt policies that tell children "'You have to be ready for us,' the flashlight is shining on the wrong object."

"Our responsibility is to be ready for the children, and to meet their needs" within the context of the regular curriculum, she said.

The statement urges kindergarten teachers and administrators to "guard the integrity of developmentally appropriate programs" in which children learn through exploration and play, and to resist societal pressure to push for traditional schooling at early ages.

In addition to suggesting flexible ability and age groupings and cooperative learning, the statement advocates class-size reductions; the use of less abstract, more conceptual curricula; and the employment of "appropriately trained" staff members.

'Who Plays God?'

Members of the group warned that children retained or placed in "segregated" programs often perceive themselves as failures.

"No matter how parents approach it, children realize what's happened to them and they bear the burden" of shame and low self-esteem, Ms. Murphy said.

That burden often falls most heavily, Ms. Egertson added, "on children least able to handle that kind of treatment."

To bolster their case for restraint in holding children back, the state specialists pointed to studies by Lorrie A. Shepard, professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Mary Lee Smith, professor of education at Arizona State University. They found that children who repeat kindergarten do not outperform comparable students in school, and that they have more negative feelings about school.

The document also advises against both raising the age at which children may enter school and counseling the parents of some children to keep them at home an extra year.

It cites studies showing that although children whose birthdays fall close to the cut-off date start school at a slight disadvantage, the achievement gap between them and their older peers disappears by the 3rd grade.

Harlan Hansen, professor of early-childhood education at the University of Minnesota, noted that while some states have advanced the cut-off date at which 5-year-olds qualify for kindergarten, "there will always be some children who are not ready."

Discriminatory Effect

Changing entrance standards raises the question of "who plays God and how early," he said, commenting that society may be moving toward a point at which "you don't get out of the womb until you have certain basic skills."

The statement also alludes to the fact that a disproportionate number of low-income children and those from racial and linguistic minorities are affected by the delayed-entry policies. This trend, the document says, "could be construed as a denial of a child's civil rights."

"The only fair, nondiscriminatory entry criterion is age," said Janet Perry, an early-childhood-education consultant for the South Carolina education department.

Other conference participants noted that advising parents to hold children back based on test results, age, or the child's developmental maturity may exacerbate the socioeconomic disparities between children.

Low-income families, they noted, are less able to provide their children with private preschools and other educational advantages that affect such measures.

Though current kindergarten policies aim to promote more homogeneity in the learning characteristics of children entering school, the statement says, they may instead "contribute to greater variation" in the age, ability, development, and educational advantages of children in the same class.

Tests Said Unreliable

In addition, the group says, few of the tests used to draw conclusions about children's readiness meet "acceptable standards of reliability and validity." The statement warns against using developmental screening and school-readiness tests interchangeably or basing placements on any one measure.

The odds of an inappropriate placement based on most widely used tests are roughly "the same as flipping a coin," according to the statement.

Mr. Meisels added that tests should not be used "to deny children services or to place them in special classes without the benefit of a complete diagnostic evaluation."

Assessments should take into account the information provided by teachers and parents, according to the statement. It also stresses that parents have a "moral and legal right" to be informed about the basis for placement decisions.

Marilyn Smith, executive director of the N.A.E.Y.C., said that the association had not yet discussed whether to endorse the state specialists' position on kindergarten entry and placement trends, but that the draft appeared to be "very much in line" with the association's concerns.

The N.A.E.Y.C. is expected to release a major position statement on testing this spring.

Approaches Debated

Despite the questions raised in the draft statement, however, some educators here maintained that current entrance policies are needed to aid children who cannot handle the academic criteria in force at many public kindergartens.

"What is the poor little child going to do when he can't keep up with six workbooks in kindergarten?" asked one educator. "We're really subjecting them to a year of failure if we take them out of alternative programs when we have not put in developmental programs," she said.

Others said that transitional programs can serve a useful role in introducing developmental concepts into the school, prompting changes in the regular kindergarten.

If an extra-year program is a "decent, developmental program, and if it gives others the idea" to adopt similar methods, one participant said, "it does some good."

Some argued, however, that such programs can have the opposite effect: legitimizing the "lockstep" curriculum used in the regular kindergarten and 1st grade.

Lawrence Schweinhart, director of the Voices for Children Project of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, argued that early-childhood educators should avoid piecemeal solutions and focus on convincing policymakers of the need to redefine kindergarten.

"You can't solve a major problem by tinkering," he said. "All this hinges on whether we believe that public-school people are educable.''

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