I was disturbed by a recent article in the Dallas Morning News describing the progress of Dallas ISD in improving the quality of its prekindergarten program. I was not disturbed by the tone of the article - it was quite positive. I was not disturbed by the emphasis the district is placing on pre-K - I commend the district for increasing funding, for adopting best practices, for focusing on developing the capacity of its pre-K teachers, and for being intentional in identifying and enrolling an increasing number of eligible students. I believe in the importance of early childhood exposure to the concepts of phonemic awareness and numeracy, and fully support early intervention efforts like Head Start and prekindergarten programs, especially in highly impoverished populations like that served by DISD.
What I found disturbing was the reference that "only __ percent of all kindergartners started school on grade level." Being defined as at or below "grade level" at the beginning of kindergarten, while perhaps convenient for describing specific skills that can be measured by standardized tests, is entirely at odds with what we know about how young children learn and develop. It is contrary to the meaning of the word kindergarten, which originally in German meant "childrens' garden". It reinforces the standardized industrial age model of education, where age is the primary factor that determines what a student should learn. As Ken Robinson describes in one of his most watched Ted Talks, it is the beginning of the process of dulling creativity.
Contrast that with the Finnish approach to kindergarten, as described in this Atlantic article by Tim Walker, The Joyful, Illiterate Kindergarteners of Finland.
Throughout the morning I noticed that the kindergartners played in two different ways: One was spontaneous and free form, while the other was more guided and pedagogical. In fact, Finland requires its kindergarten teachers to offer playful learning opportunities—including both kinds of play—to every kindergartner on a regular basis, according to Arja-Sisko Holappa, a counselor for the Finnish National Board of Education....“Play is a very efficient way of learning for children,” she told me. “And we can use it in a way that children will learn with joy.”
Imagine what it would be like if all our schools were places where children learn with joy.