Whether you think No Child Left Behind was a necessary overhaul in how public education works or a ham-fisted overreach by the federal government (or both), there is one thing about the law that most parents with school-aged kids can agree on: Kindergarten sure don’t look like it used to. Now, thanks to data obtained from the U.S. Department Of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, that subjective observation can be backed up with research — lots, and lots of research.
The study talked to about 2,500 kindergarten and first grade teachers between 1998 and 2010, and found that NCLB precipitated 2 big changes to early childhood education. First, kindergarten really is the new first grade: In 1998, only 31 percent of teachers thought children should learn how to read in kindergarten; by 2010 that increased to 80 percent. Second, when you’re trying to get young kids to learn those kinds of fundamentals a full year earlier than they used to, there’s a lot less time for the stuff you might remember from your own kindergarten experience: There were double-digit decreases in what teachers call “center time,” which includes playing with things like costumes, water or sand tables, or in nature areas. There was also a notable drop in science lessons about things like space and dinosaurs. The change in focus led to significant change staffing, too — schools report that the number of teachers focused on arts declined from 27 to 11 percent and on music from 34 to 16 percent.
That’s a whole lot of less, so what was there more of? Standardized tests. Seventy three percent of kindergartners took some form of standardized test in 2010 compared to who-knows-how-many in 1998, because in 1998 it hadn’t occurred to anyone to make kindergartners take standardized tests. This isn’t just a bummer for nostalgic parents who don’t hate fun; early childhood education experts increasingly believe that free play is essential for raising bright kids. Put another way, what’s the point of teaching a kid to read earlier if they don’t know what a brontosaurus is or how to build a sand castle for one?