When 47% of the Entering Kindergarten Class is Deemed Not Ready, Something is Very Wrong

When 47% of the Entering Kindergarten Class is Deemed Not Ready, Something is Very Wrong
He's the little one getting on the bus for kindergarten

Another of my grandkids started just kindergarten. My daughter experienced the expected emotions of a mother whose “baby” is entering public school. But there was an added worry. Was he ready for the demands of kindergarten at his school? As his grandmother, I think he is a terrific boy, full of curiosity, caring, imagination, and good humor. Will his teacher see what I see? Will she appreciate his special qualities and interests, or will he be forced into a predetermined mold of kindergarten readiness?

First day

First day

In my career as an early childhood educator and founding director of Cherry Preschool in Evanston, Illinois, I came to believe that the concept of “readiness” mattered far less than how a program could meet every child’s unique needs. The school needs to be ready to embrace every child as she is and ensure that the child develops the tools she needs to learn, not the other way around.

This was a huge rethinking of my beliefs from when I wrote my Master’s thesis in 1987 on predicting readiness for preschool. I was approaching the issue as a teacher who did not have the resources she needed to address some challenging behaviors in her class. Back in the mid-1980s, no one talked about identifying children who have special needs or including children with disabilities. No one thought to make referrals for outside help or add a staff member to provide the additional support a child required. I was a teacher at her wit’s end who wondered how difficult children could have been screened prior to enrolling in preschool and excluded because they were not ready. It is an understatement to say that in over thirty years of working with young children and their families, my thinking evolved.

Parents worry a great deal about sending their children to kindergarten these days. And they have good reason to be concerned. Kindergarten expectations are more like what parents remember as first grade, but on steroids. Thus, the concern about whether kids start kindergarten ready to learn is valid when expectations for five-year-olds are so high.

After I learned more about child development and became the director of a preschool, I served on a District 65 Task Force for Early Childhood Education. The core members of the group met monthly for a year in 1990 and produced a report with recommendations that were not too different from those in the 2017-18 Early Childhood Task Force report. Our findings and recommendations were presented to the school board, only to languish in a file cabinet. As I remember it, a few of the easier recommendations were adopted.

The new task force was charged with something we did not focus on aside from looking at poverty. It was tasked with addressing the consistent opportunity gaps based on race throughout elementary grades, starting in kindergarten. A report on early childhood experiences in my community found that the gap between largely white children from more affluent homes and children of color families from homes with fewer resources remained stubbornly persistent. This is important and must be addressed, but how does labeling 47% of kids as not ready help?

I remember talking about this same issue forty years ago when my kids were in kindergarten and second grade. Now it is viewed through the lens of children having measurable kindergarten-ready skills. Standardized tests continue to be administered to incoming kindergarten students to determine their readiness. These are the same tests used to assess readiness in the past, the same tests that revealed almost half of the kids were not ready. It will take five more years to develop new testing instruments that align with the new readiness standards adopted by the school district.

At this point, I’m scratching my head. I have read the new readiness standards and they are pretty good. More emphasis is given to the “soft skills,” including important social-emotional indicators for school success. Children need to be able to regulate their own emotions and behaviors, establish and sustain positive relationships with teachers and peers, have the capacity for empathy for others’ feelings and rights, seek adult help when needed to resolve problems, and function as a cooperative member of the classroom community.

Language skills include listening, comprehension, following two or more step directions, speaking clearly using four to six-word sentences, telling stories in a logical order, and engaging in appropriate conversational exchanges.  Cognitive goals include a positive approach to learning, the ability to remember and connect experiences, classifying objects by a characteristic, and representing ideas through things like drawings or pretend play.

Interestingly, literacy and math goals come last, which flies in the face of what kindergarten readiness expectations have been for some time. Literacy doesn’t mention being ready to start reading. Rather, it encompasses phonemic (sound) awareness, knowing some letters of the alphabet, using and appreciating books, understanding that text flows from left to right on a page, being able to ask and answer questions about books read to them, retelling stories, showing emergent reading skills, and printing their own names (not perfectly). In math, students should do basic rote counting to 20, count 10 objects accurately, understand special relationships (next to, in front of, behind, etc.), and being able to create and repeat simple patterns.

It is important to understand that these readiness standards are goals. That differs greatly from expectations for children on the first day of kindergarten. And yet, children are still being tested and labeled in terms of their readiness. I think it is important to have goals for learning. And it would help tremendously if early childhood programs and parents understood what these goals are. What bothers me is labeling children not ready for kindergarten when it is the school system that needs to be ready for each child’s unique and individual learning needs.

So, my dear grandson, I hope your school is ready to meet the needs of a terrific little boy, and not the other way around.

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