Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?

Published in: 
January 6, 2016

Daphna Bassok, University of Virginia
Scott Latham, University of Virginia
Anna Rorem, University of Virginia


Recent accounts suggest that accountability pressures have trickled down into the early elementary grades and that kindergarten today is characterized by a heightened focus on academic skills and a reduction in opportunities for play. This paper compares public school kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010 using two large, nationally representative data sets. We show substantial changes in each of the five dimensions considered: kindergarten teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, time spent on academic and nonacademic content, classroom organization, pedagogical approach, and use of standardized assessments. Kindergarten teachers in the later period held far higher academic expectations for children both prior to kindergarten entry and during the kindergarten year. They devoted more time to advanced literacy and math content, teacher-directed instruction, and assessment and substantially less time to art, music, science, and child-selected activities.

IN 2009, a report titled “Crisis in the Kindergarten” warned that kindergarten in the United States had radically changed over the past two decades and that “developmentally appropriate learning practices” centered on play, exploration, and social interactions had been replaced with highly prescriptive curricula, test preparation, and an explicit focus on academic skill building. It called for a “reversal of the pushing down of the curriculum that has transformed kindergarten into de facto first grade” (Miller & Almon, 2009, p. 63).

In recent years, major news outlets have run stories with titles such as “The New First Grade: Too Much Too Soon”; “More Work, Less Play in Kindergarten”; and “Kindergarten or ‘Kindergrind’?” (Gao, 2005; Orenstein, 2009; Tyre, 2006; Vise, 2007). Although anecdotal accounts from teachers and parents describe kindergarten classrooms characterized by mounting homework demands, worksheets, and pressure to learn to read as early as possible, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence about the extent to which kindergarten classrooms have changed over time.

This paper fills that gap, describing changes in public school kindergarten classrooms over time using two large, nationally representative datasets. We document systematic changes across five key dimensions of the kindergarten experience: (a) teachers’ beliefs about school readiness, (b) time allocated to academic and nonacademic subjects, (c) classroom organization, (d) pedagogical approach, and (e) assessment practices.

These changes are important to document because a large body of research suggests there are meaningful and potentially long-term implications to the way early childhood classrooms are structured and taught (Chetty et al., 2011; Claessens, Engel, & Curran, in press; Pianta, La Paro, Payne, Cox, & Bradley, 2002). Although there is growing consensus that children’s early childhood learning experiences can meaningfully influence their short- and longer-term life outcomes (Barnett, 1995; Chetty et al., 2011; Yoshikawa et al., 2013), it is less clear precisely what aspects of the early learning environment (e.g., curricular focus, pedagogical approach) are most critical for promoting these gains.

In particular, there is substantial debate among parents, educators, researchers, and policymakers about the potential benefits and risks of orienting early childhood learning experiences more squarely toward academic content (Duncan, 2011; Elkind & Whitehurst, 2001; Zigler, 1987; Zigler & Bishop-Josef, 2006). Although critics of academically focused kindergarten caution that focusing heavily on academic content is not “developmentally appropriate” (Datar & Sturm, 2004; Raver & Knitzer, 2002; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Stipek, 2006), there is also evidence that exposure to academic content in kindergarten (and particularly exposure to advanced content) can be beneficial for student learning (Clements & Sarama, 2011; Engel, Claessens, Watts, & Farkas, 2015). An oft-raised concern is that a focus on academic content might crowd out other important types of learning experiences that help develop social and regulation skills or foster physical and mental health, each of which is a predictor of children’s longer-term outcomes.

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