Monday, December 5, 2016

Kindergrinder Toxicity

The LA Times last week ran this story aimed directly at the feels. It's the tragic cautionary tale of a poor little five year old who arrived at kindergarten only to discover that she was already behind.

At a kindergarten screening two months before her first day, she happily chattered about her dog Toodles, her favorite color pink, her Santa Claus pajamas, her nickname Gigi, her outings with dad to see SpongeBob SquarePants movies.

But many of her 21 classmates already knew most of the alphabet, colors and shapes. Two of them could even read all 100 words — at, the, there, like — that kindergartners are expected to know by the end of the year.

The story is centered around the Great Suspenseful Question-- can Gigi, who never went to pre-school and was not read to daily, ever hope to catch up?

Teresa Watanabe chronicles the tale, duly noting without question that Gigi is facing what used to be first grade work, a situation created by the Common Core. Gigi also had the great good fortune to be enrolled at Telesis Academy of Science and Math in West Covina, a school that proudly bills itself as the "first ever No Excuses Prep Academy in the nation." You'll be happy to know that thanks to a loving teacher and hard working family, Gigi's academic career was snatched from the jaws of disaster.

The whole story is immensely depressing. The major sin of Gigi's parents is that they wanted to have a childhood, one that apparently included lots of travel and outdoorsiness and familial time. Little did they realize that while they were showering their little four year old with love and attention, they should have been prepping her for the rigors of kindergarten. I mean, I am a huge supporter of reading to your child every day, but of all the reasons to do it, "Get my child ready for rigorous academic kindergarten" does not rank high.

Is there any reason to believe that getting littles jammed full of more academics sooner actually pays off further down the road? The story doesn't address that question, nor does Watanabe consider the issue of how widely Littles differ in developmental speed-- after all, what does it mean for a five year old to "catch up"? Catch up to what? Who sets the mark that she's supposed to hit and is it reasonable to expect her to hit it if she's lived six months fewer than a peer?

I read about her mother's guilt and Gigi's own fears of failure and being wrong or different, and it just makes me sad. This story is a reminder that the transformation of kindergarten into a kindergrinder isn't just about unfounded academic practices, but taking vulnerable young children and parents and making them doubt everything about their family lives even as it teaches them to think of learning and school as something to be feared, something to be approached with dread and caution instead of embraced with joy. The toxic nature of kindergrinding isn't confined to the school building, but spills out into the community-- and all without real evidence to prove that all of these sacrifices are worth it.

I love reading. I loved sharing it with my children growing up. I loved the moments when grew into their own love of it and pushed forward to learn all about how to do it-- in their own time. But not like this. Books are for children to stand on in triumph and excitement, nor for them to be crushed under.


  1. No Child Left Behind rather than Common Core caused the high stress of kindergarten readiness. By 2014, every child in America was supposed to be able to pass a standardized test to prove their grade level proficiency. Teachers and schools as well as students would be graded based on that standardized test result. If children had significant disabilities or couldn't understand academic English which impaired their abiliy to pass such tests - too bad. The whole school was labeled a failure for all kids.

    So the pressures mounted on all students, including those in primary grades. Common core standards did augment the pressures, but the pressure to push 1st grade standards down to kindergarten started years before.

    Some children are not developmentally ready to learn to read BEFORE they enter first grade.
    For instance, they have to be able to recognize shapes before they can discriminate between letters of the alphabet and form those letters into words.

    Personal acquaintances are delaying their children's kindergarten enrollment for a year so that they are better able to withstand the current pressures of kindergarten. It would be SO much better if we'd back off the pressures and let kindergarten be a time to BECOME developmentally ready for academics rather than forcing academics onto these children.

    1. NCLB by itself was inadequate to cause what we're seeing now. All it said was that all children had to be proficient on a standardized test. While that's heinous enough, it didn't say what the test had to be. It could be practically anything pulled out of someone's, er, left shoe.

      It took Obama's RttT to fully develop the nightmare we now live in because that's what prescribed what the tests had to be like and we got joys like the Common [sic] Core [sic] State [sic] Standards [sic] and "college and career readiness" [sic] and PARCC, etc. NCLB was certainly a core piece, as it provided the foundation for punishing any schools that couldn't meet the 100% mark (essentially, all schools), but it took Obama's waivers to really stick it to schools and teachers.

  2. This is a story about the industrialization of education and dehumanization of young people. People are widgets going through an assembly line. Marx said that the factory worker experienced alienation. He couldn't have foreseen that something called public education would turn little people into data points/products. Alienation takes on new meaning in this context.

    Bernie talks about a revolution. The whole existing paradigm of public education is communicating one clear message: the scaffolding is collapsing. Perhaps unions are the best mechanism to lead the charge. Unfortunately, few people agree on a concrete solution that fits not only the philosophy of public education but the reality of providing it in this point in time. Isn't it time for some pragmatism? Is refusing to take tests enough of a stance to shift this ship's doomed trajectory?

    Gigi is a person, and there are millions and millions of children like her. At 5, she bears the stress of believing she is lacking...lacking....lacking... Always lacking. We simply cannot look to political appointees to be arbiters of good plans...they have proven to be a disaster, including some who saw the errors of their ways and reversed course. It isn't enough.

    Labels, stress, chronic evaluation, lack of insight on the part of administration; these inhuman things are taking a toll on our children, our society. It isn't trivial and it isn't going away any time soon.

    This story is more than sad: the fact that this is happening on a grand scale is calamity. Real calamity. Calamity has fall-out.

  3. When my oldest (now 15) was to begin Kindergarten, they had a forum and all the parents were instructed that the children needed to learn ALL the sight words before school started in the fall or risk being held back in Kindergarten. I felt uneasy about it, but she was my 1st child and had 3 yrs of fun preschool on her school resume' so I complied. Boy could she read the words of a story!....but had NO concept of what the story was about. She started to hate reading and being read to. Child #2 came along and I made the same mistake. Both of my children now don't like to read AT ALL. HS (especially) and MS brings with it "close reading" that they absolutely now they hate reading, they despise the books and they detest being told how they have to read. " Would that I could reverse the hands of time, I would"...and I would have homeschooled them. NCLB was bad. RttT made it worse, and Common Bore has pushed it into overdrive. There is not a single core subject class that either of my children enjoy in school. They like their teacher's, but detest everything about school. They are in the GT program because they were seen as highly motivated..... now they are only motivated to get on the bus to come home. Even in PE (HS), they have to take notes and take tests instead of actually doing PE. It's a nightmare! Both of my children have 3 education disasters to deal with.

  4. Doubt that you'll publish this, but I had a similar experience to the one described.

    About 5 years ago, my family and I moved from Manhattan to a nice suburb outside NY called Scarsdale. Our nanny who moved with us couldn't drive - so the main thing we looked for in a pre-school was one that was walking distance from the house. The school was fine but focused on "instructional play" rather than academics.

    We didn't know that most of the kids in Scarsdale attended one of two other pre-schools that taught kids their letters and even the basics of how to read.

    Prior to Judy (our daughter) starting kindergarten, they tested all the kids on the basics - knowing their letters, how to sound out words, etc. As we later learned, Judy was one of the only kids who didn't know how to read. It's not that she was dumb. My wife and I simply didn't know the expectations. Of course, we worked with her and she is now doing fine (in 3rd grade). However, she doesn't enjoy school and doesn't think that she is as smart as some of the other kids. I attribute this to her early days when she suffered in comparison.

    By contrast, we knew better when it came to Judy's two younger siblings. Using a great tool (Bob's Books), we taught them to read at a very young age. It wasn't undue pressure as Greene alleges. The twins liked learning to read and quickly got better at it. They are now in kindergarten and read at a 2nd grade level. (Their math skills are comparable.) They didn't miss out on any "travel and outdoorsiness and familial time". But the difference is that they each now have confidence in their academic skills which their older sister may lack - no matter how much we tell her that she is a smart and sweet child.

    There's nothing wrong with teaching kids at a young age. All my children now read and do math (Splashmath) at home every day after school. Again, it doesn't take away from anything else they do - like drawing or playing with friends. But it does give them a sense that they can try to understand the world around them and have the tools to do so.

  5. Not only is there no evidence that early literacy is helpful, there is a TON of evidence that it is actually detrimental. See, for example,