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Published in Print: April 12, 2000, as Getting Serious About Kindergarten

Getting Serious About Kindergarten

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As the 19 children in Karen Carter's kindergarten class rehearse their play about dinosaurs on the lunchroom stage, they squirm, fidget, and generally act like typical 5- and 6-year olds. The class stands on small risers singing, then takes turns prancing around the stage and growling in their handmade costumes.

But it isn't all fun and games. Their songs are about the Mesozoic Period, the work of paleontologists, and the habits of some lesser-known species of dinosaurs.

And it is no coincidence that their performance combines lessons in art, music, and science, along with physical activity. That kind of integrated instruction is a strategy that Ms. Carter has used for years to engage her students here at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School. "You have to have a lot of tools in your bag of tricks," she observed one recent school day.

Yet while blending an array of academic subjects into her curriculum may be nothing new to Ms. Carter, it has helped make New Hampshire Estates a model for the kind of program Superintendent Jerry D. Weast wants in kindergartens throughout the 130,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school system—in suburban Washington.

Under his plan to make kindergarten more rigorous, teachers will devote more attention to activities deemed to have a direct connection to their pupils' academic success. They will spend more time on small-group instruction in reading and mathematics, for example, and less time on lessons focused exclusively on art, music, and physical education.

In pushing for a stronger emphasis on academics during children's entry-level year, Mr. Weast is not alone. As the national trend for tougher standards has trickled down to the earlier grades, more and more communities are seeing kindergarten not as a time to get children ready for book learning, but as a place where book learning should be well under way.

That change, moreover, has not always come easy. As Mr. Weast learned when he announced his plan not long after joining the district last year, parents do not always respond warmly to the idea of giving academics top billing in their children's kindergarten classrooms.

"It's a tough process no matter how you cut it," said Robert C. Pianta, a researcher at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville who specializes in kindergarten.

One goal of Montgomery County's new curriculum, which the district is set to start phasing in next fall, is to close the stubborn achievement gap separating white and Asian-American students from their black and Hispanic classmates.

Another is to improve students' scores on the succession of standardized tests they will take during their K-12 careers, starting in 2nd grade.

"Eventually, we are going to see our verbal SAT scores skyrocket," predicted Brian Porter, the communications director for the suburban Washington district.

But the changes haven't sat well with all county parents, some of whom have lobbied the school board in a bid to derail the plan.

"The most vocal parents were those who said academics have no place in preschool and kindergarten settings," said Virginia Hillhouse, the curriculum chairwoman for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs.

Despite such misgivings, academic study is gaining an increasingly prominent place in such settings around the country.

Some of the changes in kindergarten have come in the way teachers put a new spin on old techniques. Instead of letting children play idly with blocks, for example, instructors now use them to teach such skills as sequencing, matching, and counting, thereby laying a foundation for future success in math.

More kindergarten teachers are also using worksheets to teach academic skills—a practice that many early-childhood experts say is inappropriate.

"Worksheets are just a waste of children's time," said Barbara A. Willer, the deputy executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

Experts have also voiced concern that the push to stress academics in earlier grades leaves little room for emotional and social development.

"Teachers can only do so much," Mr. Pianta said.

Lack of Rigor Cited

Superintendent Weast announced his plan for revising the kindergarten curriculum last December in a memo to the county school board, saying the current system was not rigorous enough in math and reading, did not meet the needs of all students, and was not consistent countywide.

The revised curriculum is designed to integrate art into the other subjects; increase the amount of time allocated to math, reading, social studies, and science; and reduce the time dedicated to physical education and music.

It was the reduction in music education, from 100 minutes a week to 35 minutes, that prompted William F. Tell, a Montgomery County parent, to become a candidate in the current race for the county school board.

Mr. Tell said that parents in his community were widely concerned about how the increase in academics cut into art and music. "There is value in having music as a core academic subject," he said.

In response to such concerns, district officials point out that kindergarten teachers will still be able to integrate music and art into the other subject areas, just as Ms. Carter blended science, music, and art in her dinosaur production.

"It gives kids a chance to hook into the curriculum at different spots," said Judie Munter, the district's interim associate superintendent for instruction and programs.

Getting youngsters hooked earlier, district leaders hope, will pay off in stronger academic performance down the road.

"Clearly," Mr. Weast wrote in a recent school system newsletter, "the best yield from our academic resources will be gained from earlier investment."

Vol. 19, Issue 31, Pages 20-21

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