Early Childhood

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in 1st Grade?

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 08, 2016 1 min read
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The modern kindergarten classroom looks more like 1st grade did 15 years ago, according to a longitudinal study in the online journal AERA Open.

The debate over how much early education should focus on academics has gained intensity in recent years, as more policymakers have sought to expand access and rigor in preschool and kindergarten programs. The new Every Student Succeeds Act highlights early literacy as part of a major preschool education expansion.

Emerging research has suggested that even young students can think deeply about topics that interest them, but early-childhood experts have warned that limiting play and creative activities in favor of reading and math drills is self-defeating.

Whether it’s a good idea or not, the study suggests ditching play in favor of academics is becoming the norm. University of Virginia researchers analyzed survey results from more than 5,000 public school kindergarten classrooms taking part in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. In this report, which expands on an earlier working paper on the topic, they compared reports by kindergarten teachers in 2010 to those of both kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 1st grade teachers in 1999.

Kindergarten teachers in 2010 reported spending significantly less class time on art, music, and science than did teachers in 1998. “Child-directed activities” like play and exploration also lost ground in class time: Classrooms were 20 percent less likely to have a discovery center like a sand or water table, the study found.

Modern teachers also reported higher academic expectations for their students in both literacy and math than kindergarten teachers of prior years; their expectations more closely matched those of 1st grade teachers in 1999.

The percentage of teachers who expected their students to leave kindergarten able to read, for instance, rose from 31 percent in 1998 to 80 percent in 2010.

Those trends are likely to have continued in the years since, as college-ready initiatives such as Race to the Top and the Common Core State Standards have also focused on stronger academics in early grades.


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