Commentary

Should Children Be Ready for Kindergarten—Or Should Kindergarten Be Ready for Children?

—Getty

Our growing obsession with kindergarten readiness can have real consequences

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Parents worry about whether their child is ready for kindergarten. Teachers and school administrators are concerned that too many children are entering school before they are ready. Legislators are investing in early-childhood education to improve children’s readiness for school. And, in some places, their performance on kindergarten-readiness tests are even being used to evaluate preschool programs.

Concerns about kindergarten readiness are not new. Preparing children for school was central to the purpose of Head Start in 1965, and the first aim of The Goals 2000: Educate America Act was that "all children in America will start school ready to learn." Presumably this means ready to learn the kindergarten curriculum, since all children are ready to learn from birth, and possibly before.

But more recently kindergarten readiness has become something of an obsession. Readiness assessments are required in 27 states, and most districts and schools use them even in states where they are not required.

Why have we become so preoccupied with kindergarten readiness? One reason is the mounting evidence on the significant income gap in children's social and academic skills at kindergarten entry, along with research showing that children's skills at the beginning of kindergarten strongly predict their achievement throughout their schooling. Another reason is the increased academic demands in kindergarten reflected, for example, in the Common Core State Standards, and kindergarten instruction that looks increasingly like what 1st grade instruction used to look like. The increasing emphasis on accountability puts pressure on K-12 teachers and schools to ensure that students meet the standards, and they, in turn, put pressure on preschool teachers to prepare children to succeed when they get to school.

Providing all children opportunities to develop social and cognitive skills in early childhood is critically important. But the concept of kindergarten readiness is more complex than is usually acknowledged, and its current use has important downsides.

"Why have we become so preoccupied with kindergarten readiness?"

First, what constitutes "ready" is arbitrary to the point of being meaningless. The word ready suggests a dichotomous variable—children are either ready, or they are not. This view of readiness is seen in claims such as one made in a recent Brookings Institution report: "Fewer than half (48 percent) of poor children are ready for school at age five." In reality, skills on any dimension are best measured continuously, and there is very little empirical evidence to support a particular cut-off score for kindergarten readiness. Despite being arbitrary, these scores can have significant consequences for a child—determining, for example, whether his parents are encouraged to hold him out for a year or whether he is placed in a pre-kindergarten class. A highly subjective cut-off point may also have consequences for preschools that are evaluated based on how many of their children are "ready for kindergarten."

There is also the question of which dimensions of development to consider in an assessment of readiness. Although we are learning more about which skills in early childhood predict school success, the knowledge base is hardly definitive. Moreover, children’s skills are not equally developed on all dimensions; for example, a child may have advanced academic skills but poor social skills, or vice versa. Again, which dimensions are included and how each is weighted is subjective.

The concept of readiness also makes no sense without considering what children need to be ready for. Whether a child is ready depends on the nature and demands of the school she will enter. Children who have relatively poor academic skills will rarely succeed in a class in which the teacher rigidly adheres to a curriculum that starts beyond their reach, but they might do well in a class in which the teacher differentiates instruction to meet individual needs.

Clearly the concept of readiness needs to have built into it an interaction between children's skills and dispositions on the one hand, and the demands and experiences they encounter when they enter school on the other.

The concept of readiness also depends on what we define as success. If an English-language learner enters an English-only kindergarten and fails to meet all of the kindergarten standards, but makes considerable progress in all skills, has she failed? If a child enters kindergarten having already met most of the kindergarten standards, but then doesn’t surpass them at the end of the year, has she succeeded? One could say the former was not "ready" for kindergarten and the latter was. But it was the former who benefited most from the kindergarten experience.

An interactive concept of readiness suggests that as much attention should be given to schools' readiness for children as to children's readiness for school. We do need to ensure productive learning opportunities for children before they enter school. Whatever awaits them in kindergarten, we know that children benefit from having a strong foundation to build on. But we also need to make sure schools are ready to address children's learning needs, whatever their skills when they walk in the door. For example, we need to help teachers provide instruction that is tailored to the needs of individual students and to offer the extra assistance children need if they enter kindergarten far behind their peers.

To date, the focus has been on readying children. We need to pay more attention to readying schools.

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