The study: “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” was published in the AERA peer-reviewed journal AERA Open.
- In recent years, parents and teachers have become increasingly concerned about changes in kindergarten classes across the country leading many to wonder if kindergarten has become the new first grade. Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play.
- Researchers from the University of Virginia tackled this question by comparing kindergarten and first grade classrooms between 1998 and 2010. They found that over a 12-year period, kindergarten classes have become increasingly like first grade.
- Researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study in 1998 and 2011 to compare kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010. The sample included 2,500 public school kindergarten teachers in 1998 and 2,700 in 2010 and whenever possible, responses from kindergarten teachers in 2010 were also compared to those of first grade teachers in 1999.
- The authors hypothesized that kindergarten classrooms in 2010 would be more focused on literacy and math than those in 1997, because these subjects were specifically assessed by No Child Left Behind.
- Based on the data they examined, the authors found that kindergarten teachers in 2010 have much higher expectations of their students than in 1998 and their classrooms have become more similar first grade classes from the ’90s.
- Specifically, teachers in 2010 are much more likely to believe academic instruction should begin before kindergarten, including an increase in the number of teachers who believe students should know the alphabet and how to use a pencil before beginning kindergarten, both of which rose by 33 percent.
- Teachers in 2010 were also significantly more likely to think students should leave kindergarten knowing how to read. In 1998, 31 percent of teachers believed their students should learn to read in kindergarten while in 2010, that figure jumped to 80 percent.
- As anticipated, the amount of time spent on reading and math instruction increased, particularly on skills that in 1998 were considered too advanced for kindergarten.
- In addition, researchers found that while academic instruction increased, time spent teaching arts substantially decreased. Between 1998 and 2010, the number of teachers reporting daily music instruction decreased by 18 percentage points and daily art instruction decreased by 16 percentage points. In a similar vein, the number of teachers who spent at least one hour per day on child-selected activities and the likelihood that classrooms have discovery or play areas, such as a sand table, science area, or art area, fell by 14 percentage points and over 20 percentage points, respectively.
- Teaching strategies also underwent significant shifts between 1998 and 2010 with children twice as likely to be taught reading and math using textbooks in the later period. Kindergarten teachers were also about 15 percentage points more likely to report daily use of math and reading workbooks.
- Teachers were 22 percentage points more likely to indicate that evaluating students in relation to local and state standards was very important or essential. Notably, in 1998, teachers were not asked how frequently they used standardized tests to assess student progress while teachers in 2010 were. Twenty-nine percent of kindergarten teachers in 1998 indicated they assessed their students with standardized tests at least once a month.
- Data also revealed that these findings were similar across the country but were more pronounced at schools that serve predominantly low-income and minority students, particularly with respect to teacher expectations and didactic instruction.
- “Young children’s first experiences in school are quite different today than they were in the late nineties,” said study co-author Daphna Bassok. “These changes likely have important implications for children’s learning trajectories.”
- “We were surprised to see just how drastic the changes have been over a short period of time,” added Bassok. “We expected to see changes on some of these dimensions but not nearly so systematically and not nearly of this magnitude.“