Choosing Kindergarten – Or Not

Which of these two kindergarten classes would you want your 5-year-old child or grandchild to be in? Option one is a classic kindergarten classroom, rich with tactile art and full of color, energy and happy noise. Some kids are fingerpainting with intense concentration, while others are bubbling over with curiosity and cheer. No modern technology–just chalk and blackboards–that I could see.

The other kindergarten classroom, your second option, is a carbon copy–with one striking difference: some children are using a mechanical toy to help them learn consonant blends. These kids have small devices (about the size of an adult’s hand) that looks like a bug, and a 3’ x 3’ chart with consonant blends in different squares (‘ist’, ‘int,’ ‘alt’ and so on). Rather than simply find a certain blend on the chart, the child has to program the ‘bug’ (actually a small computer) to move to the square with that blend–say, three spaces across and five spaces up. The teacher moves around the room guiding and monitoring the individual learners.

(By the way, the teacher in the second classroom told me that in a week her kids would be Skyping with a kindergarten class in Mexico, part of their study of Cinco de Mayo. The teacher is a 37-year-veteran who has just embraced digital technology in her teaching.)

I’m guessing that, in the digital-free kindergarten, the children will learn consonant blends as a group from the teacher, perhaps in a mix of a game and direct instruction. Is one approach to teaching consonant blends superior to the other? I have no clue, but being in the two classrooms raised a question in my mind: what’s the right age to introduce digital technology to schoolchildren?

Some would argue that, because most children become familiar with digital technology as toddlers, the schools ought to stay current. (“After all, who hasn’t seen toddlers manipulating an iPad or tablet?”) Others take the opposite view–”Enough, already! Let’s make classrooms tech-free zones where young children can concentrate on human interaction and social skills.”

How about you? Which kindergarten would you choose?

Unfortunately, this is a purely hypothetical question for many of you, because, depending on where you live, you may not have any choice at all. Believe it or not, six states — Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania — do not require school districts to provide any kindergarten at all, according to a report from the New America Education Policy Program. In fact, only 11 states and the District of Columbia require schools to provide free full-day kindergarten (.pdf), even though public education is a state responsibility.

Do the math: In 39 of our 50 states, politicians and other (so-called) leaders have chosen to ignore the fundamental needs of the young. Whether these adults are ignorant, cheap, selfish or inflexibly ideological is not clear; but what is obvious is that, by failing to provide kindergarten, these decision-makers have decided to keep the playing field tilted in favor of the economically comfortable. It stands to reason that failing to close the opportunity gap is a good way to insure that the so-called ‘achievement gap’ will remain wide.

Most states do require that school districts provide a free half day kindergarten program and then allow districts to go full-day if they wish. However, at least 12 states make parents pay for the second half of the day (that uneven playing field again!).

You may have heard about the kindergarten in Elwood, New York that cancelled its annual play so the 5-year-olds could spend more time becoming ‘college and career ready.’ That outrageous decision by an interim principal, and the ensuing furor, should not be allowed to obscure another harsh truth about that system: parents have to pay for the second half of the day. Sixty of the 80 families have coughed up, the article says, and one wonders what the other 20 kids are feeling.

According to the New America Foundation, somewhere between 23% and 42% of our kindergarten-age children are not in full-day kindergarten; worse yet, apparently some of those ‘full-day’ programs last only 4 hours, significantly short of actually being full-day. And budget crises in recent years have led some states and districts to reduce full-day programs to half-days.

It’s not all bad. The study points out that, “In recent years some states—including Minnesota, Oklahoma, Washington, and Nevada—have begun to expand the provision of full-day kindergarten.”

The Obama Administration is doubling down on pre-school {{1}}, as we recently reported, and that’s commendable, but I think we need a public shaming of the state political and educational leadership that doesn’t care enough to provide free kindergarten programs. These policies are short-sighted and harmful. Kindergarten, done well, is enormously beneficial to young children. It also allows more parents to enter the workforce (.pdf), which poor families are finding difficult to do because resources for early childhood education and care are scarce.

What would our Pledge of Allegiance say if it were factually descriptive, rather than aspirational? “One nation, under God, with educational opportunity for some…..”

[[1]]1. The Administration’s proposal would allow states to use pre-school funds to expand kindergarten programs.[[1]]

9 thoughts on “Choosing Kindergarten – Or Not

  1. It makes no sense whatsoever to launch a national pre-school initiative when the statistics about kindergarten that you cite prevail. How about launching a full-day kindergarten initiative?


  2. I understand the logic of allowing parents to enter the workforce, and it is no small part of the equation, but I would only want full day kindergarten if it were your first example: the kind of kindergarten that stressed play, interaction, social skills, and creativity: full of paint, playdoh, dress up corners and blocks, with lots of time outside running, climbing, and digging. I fear kindergarten is looking more and more academic, and less and less developmentally appropriate–so a full day might leave even less time for a child to be exploring the world in age appropriate ways. Day care looks better all the time, except for the economic reality.


  3. John thanks for raising this issue.

    First priority based on research seems to be high quality early childhood education for all students from low income families and students from families where English is not the first language, along with assisting families so they understand how they can help youngsters.

    The Chicago ChildParent centers have a lot of encouraging research, showing the value of
    starting at age 3 and continuing through 3rd grade.

    Yes, kindergarten is important but starting earlier with students from low income and limited English speaking families seems like an even higher priority.


  4. Add Indiana to your list of no compulsory Kindergarten. And Indiana only recently provided funding for full-day Kindergarten recently.

    In fact, Indiana does not require school attendence until age 7, and has the earliest school year birthday cut-off (August 1) in the US. This means that a child with no educational experience can be seated next to a child with pre-K, and Kindergarten under his/her belt in the same First Grade classroom. How is that likely to turn out for all concerned?


  5. I’ll take the first Kdg. classroom.

    Keep the digital technology out of the classroom if it is going to be the center of the educational interface of the children. Digital technology as a tool to expand self-directed learning activities is fine and will in fact enhance the learning experience.

    Centering the curriculum upon the device and digitized screen interfaces is a sure fire way to stunt creativity and ignore children’s innate capacities.

    What the wisest parents want for their children, that must we want for all our children.

    The designers of digital technology understand the mis-uses of digital interfacing all too clearly:


  6. High performing Finland does not start formal school until age 7. Of course, they do not have the degree of inequality that we do, everyone has access to medical care, and in general parents of young children face far less stress. Thought worth remembering all of this before we get too far into the weeks of what we do for our kids before 1st grade.

    My long-time friend Sam Meisels, who has been involved professional with early childhood through various positions at U of Michigan, the Erickson Institute, and the new place in Nebraska funded by Warren Buffett, once told me of how hard he had to fight to keep Head Start from being turned into a Reading Program.

    Learning should be exciting, fun.

    It should at ALL levels have elements of play.

    In October I attended a conference on Innovation in Education organized through the National Academy of Engineering. One thing I heard constantly was the need to teach our children how to fail. Real progress in learning, in innovation, in science, in technology, all come from taking risks and learning from our mistakes. Our national approach to educational policy wrings the joy out of learning, teaches students to fear error (which we punish by how we grade and rank based on grades), stifles creativity, and our students quickly learn to ask of anything “will this be on the test?” because if not why bother?

    There is nothing wrong with technology. Heck, I spent 20+ years of my life working with computers, was a Certified Systems Professional and am still a Certified Data Processor. But we should let children explore and play and be creative with technology.

    That said, there is also something very important in providing environments that are not “high tech.”

    The students are still learning technology.

    Fingerpaints are technology.

    A pencil is technology, and when someone like Thoreau was making them, represented an advance.

    Chalk on slate is a very useful technology – for SOME things.

    Physical books have their uses, just as electronic books do.

    In general I agree with the remarks of Amy Valens – and if you have not seen her film August to June you really should.

    I despair to think that what we are doing to young children will actually discourage them from wanting to learn.


  7. Your article is based on an assumption that kindergarten is good for children. Where is your evidence? It would be nice if people could adhere to the rigors of science when proposing an intervention such as kindergarten (or compulsory schooling in general) rather than just feel so strongly in their gut that something is good because it “seems” so evident to them that it should be constructive. Let’s at least be honest about these discussions – they are faith based.


    • Your argument is based on an assumption that Kindergarten is bad for children. Where is YOUR evidence? If you are going to rail against others for what you contend are “faith based” beliefs “in an intervention such as Kindergarten (and compulsory schooling in general),” then provide scientific evidence supporting your own position.

      And, BTW, in his comment above, Joe Nathan provided info about some of the research supporting educational interventions for low income children from age 3 – 3rd Grade.


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