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Is Common Core A Good Fit For Kindergarten?

KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

As school districts across Washington integrate the new Common Core State Standards in reading and math into their curricula, some kindergarten teachers say the standards are squeezing out other important lessons that young children need to succeed in school – and life.

The standards are meant to ensure that young people are ready for college at the end of 12th grade and that students in the same grade across the country are learning the same fundamentals in reading and math.

Washington is one of 45 states that adopted the Common Core, although Indiana recently backed out of the standards.

On a recent morning at Einstein Elementary School in Redmond, kindergarten teacher Marissa Zellers read a story with her class from a new Common Core-aligned text.

After the kindergarteners read aloud for a few sentences, Zellers paused to dig deeper into the content of the story about a little boy whose father has just gotten a job on the docks. Along with helping these emerging readers sound out the words on the page, Zellers is also helping them draw conclusions using evidence.

"Friends, do we think they really are moving now?" Zellers asked the cross-legged children on the floor. "They have a big box out. So does that help us know that they’re probably moving?”

"Yeah," the kindergarteners replied.

"Yeah," Zellers agreed. "Those pictures and that text helps us."

Making connections between evidence in a book’s illustrations and the text is one of the Common Core standards for kindergarten. It's meant as a first building block toward analytical college papers, which require citing evidence to support claims.

If that sounds weightier than the skills you remember learning in kindergarten, like making art with cotton balls and learning how to share, it’s not your imagination.

Parts of the Common Core are more challenging than Washington state’s previous standards, a fact many education reform advocates herald.

Zellers said she supports the concept of Common Core, too. "The idea to have a common set of standards across our nation is a really good idea," Zellers said. "But I think what it looks like in a classroom is much different from what’s written on the paper."

As Simple As Patterns

Zellers said one frustrating element of the Common Core is that the more rigorous standards seem to assume that all students arrive at kindergarten with the same set of skills.

She said that while some of her students come from affluent neighborhoods in Redmond, and went to high-quality preschool programs, "We also have a whole other part of our population, which is actually about 50 percent, that lives in an area that consists of transitional housing, a homeless shelter, and there are several trailer parks along the road. Both of these areas draw right into our school," she said.

Zellers said that means that in addition to teaching the new standards, she needs to get the many children up to speed on pre-kindergarten skills.

One of those skills is identifying patterns, which Zellers said is critical for students to later learn addition and subtraction. So Zellers said she and her colleagues were shocked to learn that familiarity with patterns wasn’t part of the Common Core math standards for kindergarten.

"As teachers, we’re dumbfounded by the fact that [Common Core] research is telling us they shouldn’t be doing patterning, but reality is showing us in our classrooms daily that patterning practice, and working with patterns is crucial for their next steps in math,” Zellers said.

At the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which ushered in the Common Core in Washington, Assistant Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Jessica Vavrus said the team that developed the Common Core ditched some familiar standards after examining what is taught in high-performing education systems around the world.

"The standards are actually the first time in public education where we have asked teachers to stop doing some things, and to focus more time on higher-leverage instructional practices, based on research of what skills kids need," Vavrus explained.

Vavrus said the researchers decided that some traditional standards, like pattern identification, aren’t critical to get kids ready for college and careers.

"Patterns is one that isn’t in the Common Core because there are higher-leverage things, like number sense, and understanding the placement of numbers on a number line, that for you and I to be able to access math, we need to know and be able to do," Vavrus said.

A Challenge To Stay On Track

One organization that has closely studied the kindergarten standards is the National Association for the Education of Young Children, where Kyle Snow directs its Center for Applied Research.

"When you look at the progression of skills, the sequencing is by and large reasonable based on everything I know about development of reading and development of math," Snow said.

Still, he said, young children develop skills at dramatically different rates. Along with natural variation between kids, lack of preschool put many children at a disadvantage.

In addition, a lot of kindergarten programs are only half-day, not full-day. In Washington state, 40 percent of kindergartners attend for just a couple hours a day.

That will make it challenging for them to stay on track with Common Core, Snow said.

Snow said his organization is also concerned by the new standards’ narrow academic focus. "For us, focusing on young children, we really prefer to see standards that address multiple child needs, not just math and early reading, as the Common Core does," he said.

Those multiple needs include the social-emotional lessons that have long been a hallmark of kindergarten.

Zellers said the new standards make it hard to find time for lessons that may feel like play, but are actually important for other developments, like fine motor skills.

"I think what’s being given up are really developmentally-appropriate things, like projects with cutting and gluing and coloring," Zellers said. "Even just observing kids doing a regular playtime, maybe with blocks or a kitchen area, and using that time to teach social skills.”

Snow said despite many teachers’ frustrations, it’s still too early to tell whether the Common Core standards are a good fit for kindergarten.

He said that won’t be possible until the standards are fully implemented. In Washington state, that is supposed to happen by the end of next school year.

Year started with KUOW: 2008