Failing Kindergarteners?: You Cannot Be Serious!

January 11th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

Some recent news out of the bizarro world of public education caused me to have a John McEnroe moment (for those of you who didn’t follow his illustrious and animated tennis career, the statement, “You cannot be serious!,” is one of his most famous tirades against the injustice of an allegedly bad line call). And I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard the news first hand and two different families I know personally hadn’t experienced this truly absurd development in the never-ending saga known as public education in America.

I hopefully have your curiosity piqued and your attention gained now. What is the news that I found so shocking? Well, two families we know have five-year-old daughters in two different public school kindergartens in Marin County north of San Francisco (please no Marin jokes!). The parents of each girl were notified recently by the school that their daughters were falling behind and steps needed to be taken to remedy the “problem.” In both cases, there was the unspoken message that these little girls might fail kindergarten and not be allowed to progress to first grade next year.

Excuse me, did I hear this right? After being in kindergarten for only four months, how is it possible for children to be falling behind? I know that standards for kindergarten have gotten tougher in recent years. In fact, what used to be the first-grade curriculum is now being taught in kindergarten (for all the good that has done for educating America’s youth!). Children these days are expected to be reading and writing before they get to kindergarten!

But, I’m sorry, the words kindergartener and failure simply don’t belong in the same sentence. Sure, there are going to be some children with serious learning or behavioral challenges who will have difficulties overcoming the rigors of kindergarten (note ironic tone when I use rigors and kindergarten in the same sentence). But I know both of these little girls well and they are as normal as the next kid.

I know administrators and teachers feel pressure to prepare their students for standardized testing, but this seems a bit ridiculous. From what I understand, the first standardized tests begin in second grade, which is light years away from kindergarten developmentally. And I should point out that Norway, considered to have one of the best public education systems in the world, doesn’t begin to teach their students to read until they are seven years old and does no testing till fourth grade.

I don’t mean to place the blame for this absurdity on the teachers; they’re just following the rules set out by their local school boards and the education mandates established by the state and federal governments. I do blame the “edutocracy” that maintains a profound disconnect between education policy and what is developmentally appropriate and healthy for children. At a deeper level, I hold our increasingly demented culture responsible for promulgating values and beliefs that are so out of sync with what is in the best interests of children and for sowing the seeds of fear that drives everyone along the educational food chain to make just plain bad decisions.

Lastly, I feel sympathy for the anxiety-ridden and traumatized parents who only want what’s best for their children and so are compelled to get on board the insane train of public education and hang on for dear life lest their children get left behind on the tracks. Mostly though, I feel worst for those two girls, and the many children who find themselves in a similar situation, who don’t deserve to be labeled as being behind as they just begin their educational journey and are treated more as products in a factory line and aren’t allowed to be what they are, just five-year-old kids.

To listen to a fascinating discussion of education in America, go to this TED lecture by Ken Robinson.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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6 Responses to “Failing Kindergarteners?: You Cannot Be Serious!”

  1. Lisa |

    Kindergarten is no longer what it was when I attended circa 1960. My daughter who is currently in 8th grade was expected to read in kindergarten. The kids were also learning bar graphs, history and other subjects with homework. Teachers usually explain the expectations during back-to-school night held during the first week or so of school. Unfortunately, many parents do not think it is important to attend and their kids are left behind.

    Once again, it is the parents who are not staying on top of things. Trust me, if a the majority of the kids were having this problem, the school system would lower the bar. As far as I am concerned, the bar needs to be set higher than it is now. This is another area where the Unites States falls woefully behind other countries.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Lisa, I agree that kids need to get off to a good start in school and that many parents should be more involved with their kids’ education. But isn’t it maybe going a little too far to have serious subjects with homework and even the possibility of failure in kindergarten? These kids are what, 4-6 years old? I agree with Jim that it has gotten a little bizarre. Maybe this is a good thing for unusually bright kids who’ve been prepared by their parents, but that doesn’t describe the average kid. Why put them in such a challenging environment at that young age, where their first experience with school includes pressure, stress, and the possibility of failure?

  3. drjim |

    @Tom: I’m with you 100%. There is a time to get tough on kids academically. I just don’t think that time should be at age 5 or so. That is the time to make learning fun and engaging, and stimulate their love of learning, curiosity, and interest.

    BTW, if you missed it, this article in the WSJ is a must read (a future blog post too!)

  4. Lisa |

    I did not say that homework in kindergarten is tough or not creatively fun. Every week my daughter made a collage with pictures of things that start with a specific letter of the alphabet. The problem is that many of these kids go home and their parents allow them to sit around playing video games or watching TV.

    I think it is strange that normal balanced kids are having trouble in kindergarten. Sometimes we have to ask the difficult question, “Is my kid the only one having this problem, or are many other kids having problems?” If several kids are having issues, the parents need to go through all the appropriate channels necessary to address the problem.

    Tom, it’s been a while since you were on the parenting scene. Kids do not play outside anymore and their parents do not read to them at night. Many parents shuffle their kids off to school and expect the school system to take over.

  5. drjim |

    @Lisa: I agree with your last comments. Parents have to accept some of the responsibility for their children’s readiness for kindergarten. But I guess my point is that kids shouldn’t have to “prepare” for kindergarten academically. They should just be able to follow direction, pay attention, play well with others, etc. Kindergarten is where preparation should occur for elementary school.

  6. Tom Carter |

    Lisa, you’re right, times have definitely changed. It’s sad that kids can’t just go out and roam around the neighborhood and play like they used to, with little restriction beyond “be home before dark.” I’m sure it still happens in some areas and some parents still pay more attention to their children, but it seems kids now are more attached to the world digitally than they are physically. That’s a big loss, I think.

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