How kindergarten got so serious

Where did the playtime go in kindergarten?

The blocks?

The sandbox?

The Times published a front-page story over the weekend about efforts in Sacramento to make kindergarten mandatory. Right now, parents in California are not required to send their children to school until they’re 6 years old. In other words, mandatory schooling starts in first grade. The bill calls for mandatory kindergarten, though the age for mandatory schooling would still be 6.

This story led us to look into kindergarten a bit more. We wanted to understand how it has changed over the past few decades. The kindergarten of many of our childhoods was focused on play and didn’t have the rigorous academic standards that 5-year-olds in California face today.

So we asked some experts about what changed, and here’s what they told us.

Fifteen years ago, schools were happy if children left knowing the names of letters and whether they were in upper- or lower case, says Lisa Harmison, a teacher at 186th Street Elementary who has more than 30 years of teaching experience.

State standards upped the seriousness of kindergarten in California, she said. "If they drew a picture and wrote a simple sentence about their picture and they used some high-frequency words and some sound spellings, that was sufficient” under state standards, Harmison said.

The state’s English-Language Arts kindergarten standards from 2000 state that students should “know about letters, words, and sounds. They apply this knowledge to read simple sentences.” They should also be able to “write words and brief sentences that are legible.” That meant they could “distinguish letters from words” and spell phonetically, based on how a word sounds. They didn’t necessarily need to be able to read a full sentence, but they could identify where the author’s name and a book’s title are on the page, and use pictures to contextualize the material.

And now, under current Common Core State Standards? “At this point, we have kindergarteners who must write to a specific writing prompt, and we expect them to produce anywhere from one to three sentences on a given topic. And we’re looking for beginning and ending punctuation,” Harmison said.

New standards do prepare students better for the rigor of first grade, she said. Earlier progress reports were more subjective, based on effort. She likes that the new standards ensure everyone is working toward the same goal, evening out the academic field.

Others are not so sure and say that kids are losing the opportunity to learn through play. 

“They’re setting the kinds of expectations for children that are really putting pressure on teachers to get them to read, to get them to be up to snuff in terms of mathematical concepts, all the kinds of things in really good early-childhood practice can be done in very organic, integral ways,” said Susan Ochshorn, founder of the early childhood education consulting company ECE PolicyWorks. “There’s a lot of concern as kindergarten is becoming more rigorous.”

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at sonali.kohli@latimes.com.

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