Student Achievement

Is Kindergarten the New First Grade? Researchers Say Yes

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 30, 2014 2 min read
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The days when kindergarten focused on playing and finger painting may be waning, as early-learning classrooms devote significantly more attention to preparing students to read, according to a new University of Virginia study.

From 1998 to 2006, kindergarten teachers reported devoting 25 percent more time to teaching early literacy, from 5.5 hours to seven hours per week, according to the working paper by Daphna Bassok, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Anna Rorem, a policy associate at the university’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
The researchers analyzed changes over time in teacher expectations, curriculum, and students’ time on task using data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.

Though the overall time for kindergarten has increased since the late 1990s, with 75 percent of kindergartners now attending full-day classes—up from 56 percent in 1998—the researchers found that time devoted to mathematics flatlined and time for all other non-literacy subjects decreased: Kindergartners today now spend as much time on reading and language arts as they do on mathematics, science, social studies, music, and art combined.Time for the last four subjects dropped by 30 minutes per week for each of those subjects except for math.The percentage of teachers who reported their students never received physical education more than tripled, from 14 percent to 45 percent (and as the mother of a young son, I don’t even want to think about a class of 5-year-olds who don’t get their wriggles worn out regularly).

This change in curriiculum is particularly interesting considering that these data sets counted an integrated activity—say, a science experiment that included reading—for both subjects. So why the focus on reading to the exclusion of other topics?

Other findings suggest federal, state, and district accountabilty pressures and state initiatives to “read on grade level by 3rd grade” may have narrowed the focus. Bassok and Rorem found that the number of early-education teachers who believe students should begin learning to read in kindergarten more than doubled from 1998 to 2006, from 31 percent in 1998 to 65 percent in 2006. The teachers also became more likely to teach spelling and use standardized assessments in kindergarten, they found.

What I find telling is that, while kindergarten teachers became more and more likely to consider academic skills like knowing the alphabet, colors, and shapes vital for students to learn in the earliest grades, they still rated them as less crucial than skills associated with self-regulation—following directions, sitting still, and completing tasks, for example. As the entry point to school, kindergarten is still the place where children are learning to raise their hands and color inside the lines. Yet as more students attend preschool at ages 2, 3, and 4, academic expectations for kindergarten may continue to rise, increasing the potential for school-readiness gaps at ever younger ages.

Above: The chart shows class time devoted to different subject areas by teachers of kindergarten and 1st grade students from 1998 to 2006. Source: The Center on Education Policy and Workforce Competitiveness, University of Virginia.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.