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Kindergarten, Standards, and the Common Core

By: Nell Duke

Is your child enrolled in kindergarten in a school that is implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)? In this overview for parents, learn more about what Common Core is and how to know whether a teacher is providing developmentally appropriate instruction to address the CCSS for your child. Here are some of the questions you might ask yourself.

You may have heard debate about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for kindergarten. Some people are arguing that these Standards are too demanding, thus pushing young children too far too fast and resulting in developmentally inappropriate classroom practices. Others are arguing that these standards are not only attainable but a key to improving U.S. education. So what’s a parent to believe?

First, keep in mind what standards are and are not. Standards are expectations about what students know and are able to do. For example, the CCSS expect that, by the end of kindergarten, children can “Ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text.” That is, if a teacher reads a story to children with the word drawbridge, we hope that a child who doesn’t know will ask, “What’s a drawbridge?” If a story describes an egg as enormous, we hope that a child will be able to answer the teacher’s question, “What do you think enormous means?” using clues from the context and picture.

Standards address what to teach, but they do not tell teachers how to teach. For example, there are many different ways to help students learn to ask and answer questions about unknown words in a text. The standards don’t specify which techniques a teacher should and shouldn’t use.

Standards are not the same as testing. One can have standards without any large-scale, high-stakes testing, and large-scale, high-stakes testing can exist, and has done so, without alignment to standards.

So are the CCSS expectations for what kindergarteners know and are able to do too high? The short answer is “Not in the hands of a teacher who knows how to address them appropriately.” The problem, of course, is that not every teacher knows this. Factors such as tight education budgets and controversy over the very adoption of the CCSS have meant that some states and districts have not invested in the level of professional development that some teachers need in order to address the CCSS appropriately. The result can be inappropriate practice.

For example, a teacher might think that to address the standard that expects students to “recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet,” she needs to give children piles of worksheets or lead lengthy drills, but I have seen many teachers support children to meet this standard without any drills or worksheets. In fact, some of you may have a child who met this standard without worksheets or drills. Teachers might read alphabet books, lead alphabet games, give children opportunities to write letters in sand or with sidewalk chalk, make personalized alphabet books (for my son, D was for Dinosaur!), use alphabet puppets, and so on.  No drills or worksheets here!

So how do you know whether a teacher is providing developmentally appropriate instruction to address the CCSS for your child? Here are some of the questions you might ask yourself:

  • Does my child come home from school feeling positive and that he or she has succeeded in learning or achieving something?
  • Is my child given lots of opportunities to move and change activities (versus expected to sit in one place for long periods of time doing the same thing)?
  • Is my child given opportunities to make connections between what he/she knows from our home and community and what he/she is learning in school?
  • Does my child have the opportunity to listen to texts that are interesting to him/her and to emergent-read texts with which he/she can have success? (emergent reading involves reading very simple texts with simple words and support from pictures and patterns)
  • Is my child given opportunities to write texts that are meaningful to him/her (e.g., a note to you, a sign on their block creation that says "Don't touch!" -- with these in whatever level of writing they are, whether that's scribbling, writing the first letter in each word, and so on)?
  • Does the teacher seem to adjust instruction based on what each child knows and is able to do?
  • Are children given opportunities to create, imagine, and play as part of their instruction?

If the answer to these questions is “no,” it’s time to ask the teacher, and, as needed, the school leader, to tell you more about how the CCSS are being addressed. If your child is unhappy or disengaged in school, work together with the teacher or school leader to figure out how to address the problem; they may come up with more developmentally appropriate practices. If you cannot make headway with this approach, consider seeking information and support outside the school, for example from friends who are educators, books or articles for parents or teachers, or from trusted sources such as Reading Rockets. You can also help teachers in your child’s school in obtaining professional development in how to address the standards (e.g., through fund raising or volunteering to help out when there is a substitute teacher).

Let’s turn kindergarten controversy into kindergarten collaboration!

Nell K. Duke, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, School of Education.

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