In my long career as an early childhood program director, I have given many talks to parents of children about to start kindergarten. While these parents were sometimes worried, over the past decade they became more anxious about how well their children would handle entry into a formal education system. Now, a proposed Illinois law declares that every child who turns five by September 1 first must start kindergarten. Redshirting, taking an extra year and starting kindergarten at age six, will be outlawed.
The law’s intent is to help disadvantaged children by ensuring they begin their formal education as early as possible. In my experience, the issue of redshirting, holding a child back for an extra year of childcare, rarely comes up these days. With most parents working full time, very few households have the luxury of paying for an extra year of childcare or managing the logistics of partial day pre-K programs. This is especially true in communities characterized by poverty and a lack of good childcare options. So just who are these parents who opt to delay kindergarten for a year?
The myth is that they are trying to gain an advantage for their children by making them the oldest members of their cohort. They will be smarter than the rest and dominate the sports teams. This thinking may have been popular in another era, but with studies going back twenty years indicating that the advantages of redshirting dissipate over time, parents rarely hold their kids back for this reason.
Although the proposed law allows for parents of children with summer birthdays, the youngest members of a kindergarten class, to wait an extra year, age alone is rarely the issue for parents who opt for this pre-K gap year. My advice to parents of the youngest kindergarteners was that if age were combined with a concern about the child’s development, it was worth thinking about starting kindergarten at age six. For some children with developmental delays, waiting for the child to become sturdier and more mature was in the child’s best interests. For others, starting kindergarten on time with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was what the child needed. The point is that this is a highly individual parental decision that should not be legislated solely based on age.
Because kindergarten has been transformed over the past decade or so to be more like first or even second grade, academic and with the goal of producing readers, parents worry about how well their children will fare. Not all kindergarteners are developmentally ready to read or do academic work. Due to these greater demands and expectations, the issue of kindergarten readiness has become a huge deal. In my community of Evanston, Illinois, my grandchildren were tested when they entered school. My grandkids in Massachusetts are also assessed then, and the ones in Indiana take their tests in the summer before they even start school.
Clearly, no matter where children live, it is very important to be “ready.” But my questions are what does kindergarten readiness really mean and who needs to be ready, a five-year-old or the school system that will be receiving that very young child?
In Evanston, the local headlines have been focused on declining kindergarten readiness scores, this despite a greater emphasis on early education and more focus on helping children starting at birth. It is a mystery why the same Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL) test they have been using for years to assess kindergarten readiness indicates that fewer children are ready (41% in 2015 and 26.6% in 2018). What could explain these lower scores? Have the ISEL norms changed? Does the cohort being tested now including English language learners and special education students? Were the test administrators in 2018 different from the people who gave the test in 2015? Were they properly trained to give the test? Is the impact of electronic devises resulting in lower scores? Or is the test itself not a good predictor of readiness? Even when children scored higher on readiness, 59% of children deemed not ready for kindergarten was pretty bad.
As a former early childhood educator and preschool director, I have never been a fan of using standardized tests with such young children to determine which ones are “ready.” Kids this age can be unreliable test takers. A shy child or a child with a cold may not perform well on an assessment administered by a stranger. The test itself may not capture the skills most predictive of readiness. In fact, there is considerable disagreement these days as to what constitutes kindergarten readiness. “Soft skills” – curiosity, imagination, love of learning, sharing, taking turns, playing with peers, resolving conflicts, listening to a story, following directions, age-appropriate self-help skills, problem-solving, empathy, and impulse control – are more predictive of school success than skills measured by standardized tests. And most kindergarten teachers can assess these soft skills within the first weeks of school through observation.
Rather than focusing on these soft skills, our approach to teaching young children has become increasingly standards based and focused on rote learning. Recently, Defending the Early Years (DEY) and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) expressed concern about Waterford UPSTART, a Utah-based online "preschool" program. If you think the concept of online early childhood education is ridiculous, think again. An April 21 New York Times article (Silicon Valley Came to Kansas Schools. That Started a Rebellion), described how computerized learning looks in actual practice. Summit Learning*, an online, web-based curriculum in which learning is individualized for every student via chrome books, had students hunching over their laptops for long stretches of their day while teachers “mentored” them in completing their personalized computer work. Children complained of eye strain, headaches, hand cramps, stress, and loneliness. Parents started pulling their children out of the public schools using this program, saying their kids looked like “zombies” in these settings.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife Priscilla Chan helped develop the Summit Learning program – for other people’s children. Their older daughter started preschool in January of 2018. From the photo Zuckerberg posted on Facebook, it looks like a pretty nice place. She was all dressed up to meet her teachers and classmates, interact with caring educators, explore with her peers, have important human relationships, and learn through creative play. And yet, many think preschoolers from less advantaged communities can get by with online preschool programs like UPSTART. Any early childhood educator can tell you that all children deserve the same high-quality early education as Zuckerberg’s daughter. Online programs and rote learning are not a substitute for high quality programs and will make inequality worse.
Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., Professor Emerita at Lesley University, DEY Senior Advisor, and author of Young Children in the Digital Age, reminds us that,
"Kids learn by playing, exploring, and interacting with peers and caring adults - not by memorizing letters, numbers, and colors presented to them on screens. Children who receive UPSTART's screen-based version of a preschool experience will be disadvantaged compared to children from more resourced communities who have play-based, experiential early education. A truly audacious project would take the funding intended for these online programs and direct it instead to giving low-income, rural, or otherwise underserved children the high quality, face-to-face education they deserve."
There is an estimated $70 billion a year “preschool market” for online learning for young children, based on the false premise that these programs will make them readier for kindergarten. The proposed Illinois law assumes that the sooner children can start kindergarten, the better. There is even a provision for early entry. This line of thinking is aimed at disadvantaged children and makes the false assumption that starting formal education as soon as possible, regardless of quality and developmental appropriateness, will close the learning gap between them and children of privilege.
When dubious test results indicate that most children in a community like Evanston are not ready for kindergarten success, the tendency is to blame early education programs and parents. Early childhood educators know this is backwards thinking. It is the school that must be ready to meet each unique child where she is and guide her through developmentally appropriate learning to reach her full potential. The issue of redshirting is a red herring. The true issue is the quality of every child’s educational experience, both prior to and in kindergarten.
*Summit Learning shares that it was developed by teachers and the online, computer-based portion of students’ learning is intended to comprise less than half of their day. For more information about this program, go to Summit's website.