Connie Cox’s kindergarten class. Photo by Jason Selby
For me, kindergarten seemed like a huge step. I hadn’t been to preschool or Head Start, so it was my first time away from mom. I remember singing rhyming songs, coloring worksheets, and learning the alphabet—with help from the inflatable letter people. There was naptime on rugs, story-time, and playtime with oversized cardboard bricks. Back then, kindergarten acted as a period of transition before children officially entered ‘school’ in first grade.
The kindergarten program looks different now. Classrooms are still colorful and bright, filled with kid-sized chairs and cubbies, alphabet and number charts, but teachers’ approach to educating children has drastically changed. In general, schools have made numerous modifications because of legislation enforcing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.
In 2001, President Bush signed the act—which “provides money for extra educational assistance for poor children in return for improvements in their academic progress” (fairtest.org)—that brought on efforts to completely restructure the education system. Included in the act are requirements to establish learning standards (statements of what children should know and be able to do in each subject), create annual assessments (standardized tests to measure progress in subjects), and report results to the state (with information broken down by race, income, gender and disability). The act leaves it up to individual states to deal with the details, but consequences of not meeting these requirements can lead to cuts in governmental funding and possible shutdown.
In effect, No Child Left Behind aims to increase accountability for all schools individually, wherein they must ensure their teachers and curricular programs are of an appropriate quality in order to achieve state standards. The problem is that, with so much emphasis on reaching standards and improving performance, students might suffer from the unrealistic expectations placed on them. The act fosters a sort of competition between and amongst schools that can draw administrative focus away from the child as individual learner.
At the time the No Child Left Behind Act was signed, I was in my first year of the education program at Simpson College. I remember the overall feeling about the act was one of uncertainty bordering on panic. No one seemed to know what any of it meant, what the repercussions would be. The powers-that-be made a decision that would affect everyone, without giving much guidance as to how it should be implemented. This left many already overworked teachers, staff and administration worried, wondering what changes would take place.
Then came the establishment of the Common Core State Standards, adopted by our Board of Education unanimously in July of 2010. The main goal of the Common Core is that all students will be “prepared for success in postsecondary education and the workforce” by “receiving a high quality education consistently, from school to school and state to state.” (Iowa Board of Education) The adoption of the Common Core has relieved some of that panic by providing answers to the question of how to implement NCLB legislation. The Common Core also allows for personalization for each district to develop its own curriculum “to best meet the needs of students sitting in the school.” This lets teachers choose their own textbooks and materials.
This is good for teachers here in Wayne Schools, because their top priority is our kids. The more flexibility they have, the better able they are to meet the needs of their students. As I mentioned, the changes are most apparent in the approach the kindergarten team takes in what they teach.
“Some are shocked when they find out what the kids are learning,” said Connie Cox, who’s been a self-described “mother hen” teacher for 40 years. “The curriculum for kindergarten is much more academic than it used to be.”
From day one, kids learn to recite a poem. They begin a reading program that includes learning sight words and identifying nouns and verbs.
“They have 15 minutes of play, then they work until the end of the day,” Cox says, illustrating the rigorous quality of instruction for kids just beginning their formal education.
Another feature, the Characteristics of Effective Instruction (CEI), involve concepts that teachers must master. The acronym START represents the five characteristics:
Teaching for understanding
Assessment for learning
Rigorous and relevant curriculum
Teaching for learner differences
“Each year, each teacher focuses on one of the five areas with a team of other teachers. They research, collaborate, experiment, share, observe, apply and learn new strategies,” says Superintendent Dave Daughton. “They also document their work and learning as a part of their annual Career Development Plan.”
The Wayne kindergarten team includes Connie Cox, along with Carla Perkins and Tia McElvain, and Barb Ford, who teaches Developmental Kindergarten. They spend a lot of time reflecting on their lessons and evaluating student learning with daily assessment that gives instant feedback, telling them what they need to re-teach and emphasize.
“We do a lot of intervention and accommodation,” said Cox. “And we’re very honest with parents. Open communication is just so important.”
Cox shines a positive light on the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act. “It’s brought academics up, and testing has improved. It lays a good foundation for what we need to do. We’ve had to come up with some good strategies. We’ve had to be creative, and think out of the box.”
The kindergarten program fosters independence for students. Each task has a clearly stated purpose, which is posted on the board. The reading plan allows them to go at their own pace, with small groups arranged according to ability that change as readers progress in levels.
With relatively small class sizes of around 15 children, teachers have more time to work one-on-one.
“We build relationships first,” said Perkins. “We want them to have self-worth, and know they’re important to somebody and feel cared about.”
Cox agrees. “We want them to feel successful and know they can learn. They learn confidence when they do what they thought they couldn’t.”
Due to the level of rigor in the curriculum, some children start out in the Developmental Kindergarten (DK) to get a stronger foothold. Ford discusses the effects of these legislation changes on achievement.
“State and federal laws now require students to achieve at standard rates with little regard for the child’s readiness. DK gives the child an extra year to develop, so they will be ready and able to learn in kindergarten. Children who have been in DK are often at the top of the class in kindergarten. Students who are in kindergarten before they are ready struggle and become frustrated. Frustration often causes children to dislike school and develop inappropriate behaviors in the classroom.”
Developmental Kindergarten is closer to what I remember, with emphasis on letter and number basics, without sight word lists and reading level groups. The focus is on social development and basic skills, including fine motor coordination.
“We have more time when the children can choose their own activity, individually or as a group. They learn to get along with each other and explore their interests,” says Ford.
There might be a misconception about DK students, though, and Ford wants people to know, her students are not “slow” or delayed, nor are they less intelligent.
“The truth is, research says that children develop at different rates and may not be ready for reading, writing and math at five years of age. Some perfectly normal kids may not be ready [to] begin reading until they are seven or eight.”
And while her lesson plans may look different than those of Cox, Perkins and McElvain, their ultimate goals are the same.
“I want my students to be successful in school, and in life. I want them to take [from my class] a love of learning and the confidence that they are capable and able to achieve their goals,” said Ford, who has three granddaughters currently in kindergarten.
Teachers spend a large part of their own money on supplies. This is just one of the many ways they’re dedicated to their students. When asked what they needed most, they reported science and technology as two areas they are always looking to expand. For instance, dinosaur digs and simple experiments require supplies that must be constantly replenished.
“We go to a lot of auctions and garage sales,” said Cox, when asked where they find most of their supplies. “We’ll do whatever it takes to keep it exciting and new.”
To introduce kids to computers, they use free websites like pbskids.org, starfall.com, and enchantedlearning.com.
But more than anything, they want parents and the community to support and encourage their children.
“Let them know that school is important and that they are learning,” Ford said. “Talk to them about their day and what they learn. Recognize their strengths, growths and achievements.”