Trickle-Down Academics and the Early Grades: A Case of Deja Vu

Each generation of education reformers thinks it’s forging a new path.  Such hubris.  As any historian will tell you, we’re traveling in well-worn grooves, protected by a case of amnesia.


In 1988, the year my son started kindergarten, an article by Lorrie A. Shepard and Mary Lee Smith appeared in The Elementary School Journal, out of the University of Chicago.  With the no-nonsense title, “Escalating Academic Demand in Kindergarten: Counterproductive Policies,” the authors depict a situation that, pretty much to a tee, resembles our state of affairs today.   More than a decade before No Child Left Behind, when Race to the Top was but a gleam in the eye of Arne Duncan, the earliest years of education were under siege from academic downward drift.

“Academic demands in kindergarten and first grade are considerably higher today than 20 years ago and continue to escalate,” Shepard and Smith write. Picking up data from the Journal’s introduction, they note a recent survey of principals, 18 percent of whom reported district policies mandating the teaching of reading to all kindergartners.  Not an avalanche, by any stretch of the imagination.  But, in practice, fifty percent of schools were teaching reading to kindergartners who were “ready and able.”

The authors also document the increasing pressures on kindergarten teachers, which were moving down, inexorably, to preschool educators.  They cite a quote from an article by Edward Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times, on May 27, 1986, about a study of 100 child-care programs in Los Angeles, one-quarter of which could be classified as “sit down, shut up and count to 100.”  Also affected were collegial relationships.  In interviews  Shepard and Smith conducted with kindergarten teachers in a middle-class district, references to “day-to-day pressures to raise expectations” were frequent, and many educators set their goals beyond district guidelines, the better to meet the demands of first-grade teachers.

Parents were also major players in this scenario, their anxiety about their kids’ achievement fueling demands for more academic content.  Many parents, the kindergarten teachers reported, made it clear that their sole criterion for teacher effectiveness was success in advancing their children’s reading accomplishments.  Shepard and Smith noted that what counted for parents was the number of first-grade primers completed in kindergarten—“a clearly quantifiable measure of progress, like an SAT score for a 5-year-old.”

The authors hardly regard academic escalation as a victory:

Our concern is not with kindergarten cognitive learning goals per se, but with most educators’ narrow, linear conceptions of what the learning should be, for example, workbooks, drill and practice, staying in the lines.  It is as if, not knowing how to adapt language and number learning for the intellect of 5-year-olds, the easiest course is to rush faster along the tracks of first-grade and second-grade curricula.

Sound familiar?

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