In 1988, Robert Fulghum, a minister, published a series of essays in a book titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten. In the beginning pages, he detailed the life lessons he internalized as a five year-old: share everything; play fair; don’t hit people; put things back where you found them; say you’re sorry when you hurt someone; don’t take things that aren’t yours; well, you get the idea. Fulghum’s book was a runaway bestseller, tapping into our collective memories about socializing in what, for most of us, was our first time in a formal school setting. Between playtime, naps, and cookies and milk, our kindergarten teachers taught us how to interact with our classmates, lessons that, on the surface seemed simple, but yet were profound and became tools that we would use throughout our lives.
Mary Smith (not her real name) is a kindergarten teacher in New York State. These days she finds she has little time to teach her students those basic life lessons. Teaching kindergarten is now less about learning social skills and more about passing tests. Mary’s experience mirrors that of kindergarten teachers in most areas of the U.S. More than two dozen states require at least one formal assessment during kindergarten and many school districts add on their own tests. Education has become an issue in the presidential election with both candidates promising improvements in student performance and holding teachers accountable for those results.
America is panicked that our children are falling behind in higher education, losing ground, particularly, to South Korea and China. The U.S. Is now rated “average” in international education rankings by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, receiving scores out of 1,000 of 487 in math, 500 in reading, and 502 in science. Not good enough, everyone agrees. So the race to compete now begins in kindergarten and teachers are being held responsible for getting their students up to speed.
In Mary’s district, testing begins even before the students start school. “We have kindergarten screening and test them then,” she explains. There is no testing on the first day of school, but those first hours are stressful for both the teachers and the children. “I don’t like the first day of school,” Mary confesses. Even children who have attended pre-school must adjust to a new learning environment. There’s crying and clinging to a parent’s hand. “We read a book The Kissing Hand about a raccoon who goes to school for the first time,” Mary explains. “His mom kisses his hand and tells him she will be with him all day. We talk about that and do an activity. The remainder of that first day involves giving instructions—where to sit, how to line up, how to go to the bathroom, all the rules.”
The second week of school, barely giving the children enough time to settle in, testing begins in earnest. In Mary’s school, the children must take four different tests, two in the computer lab. “Some of these children have never even been on a computer before and don’t know how to use a mouse,” says Mary. (One-third of the students in Mary’s class are at or below the poverty level.) Although the children often enjoy those tests—”There’s no crying in the computer lab because it’s fun”—Mary questions the validity of the tests.
The other tests are more stressful for the kids, requiring them to sit at a desk and answer questions by filling in “bubbles’ with a pencil. This time around, Mary read the questions to them and when it was time to turn a page, she had to walk around the room to make sure they were literally all on the same page. “The kids had no idea what to do,” Mary says. “A lot of the kids just colored in all the bubbles. I had kids crying. They had to sit there for 90 minutes and in kindergarten you don’t do anything for 90 minutes.”
Mary was not allowed to test her own students; another teacher did that. Mary tested another class. So any comfort level the children had begun to find with their homeroom teacher disappeared. Apparently, this tactic is supposed to prevent having teachers influence how their students do on the tests.
Because that’s what this is all about: the students are not being tested, the teachers are. The four tests establish a baseline, measuring where the children are academically as they enter kindergarten. If, after a school year, the students don’t improve, that will affect the teacher’s rating—highly effective, effective, or not effective.
Is it any wonder that some teachers approach these tests with a certain amount of cynicism? If most of the class does poorly on that first round of tests, there’s nowhere to go but up. By the end of the school year, even the worst teacher will probably look pretty good.
“The testing is not even about the kids; it’s about us, the teachers,” says Mary. “The kids have to go through a lot for us to be evaluated. It’s coming at the expense of the kids.”
Once that first round of testing is completed, the work has just begun. The entire year will be devoted to ensuring that the children continue to improve. A teacher’s job may depend on it. In the past, Mary planned a musical for her children to perform at the end of the school year. “By February, I will have to make a choice: am I going to do this musical, take time away from teaching to the tests? Do I have enough confidence that my kids are going to do well on these tests, because the musical takes time.” Mary says that her former students tell her that one of their best memories of kindergarten is participating in the musical. “In education now, that kind of fun stuff is being taken away,” she says. With her own funds, Mary sets up a “dramatic play area” and changes the theme each month. In September, the theme was housekeeping, in October, a fruit stand with apples and pumpkins. In future months, she has plans for a restaurant, a train table like the one in Polar Express, a veterinarian’s clinic, and others. “The kids love this, but this year it’s been tough just to give my kids `free choice time’ so they can play in the area,” she says.
Each teacher in Mary’s school will be evaluated by the principal twice a year, a state requirement. “I think this is a good thing because after you get tenure (Mary received hers three years ago) the principal rarely visits your classroom,” she says. Still this step in the evaluation is time consuming for both the teachers and the principals. Beforehand, the teacher must fill out a pre-evaluation form, answering some 30 questions. Other teachers have told Mary she will need to spend at least ten hours filling out this form. The principal must fill out lengthy forms on each teacher after each classroom visit. “All the things that a principal does during the day, doing the evaluations is added on top of that,” Mary says, noting that her principal now spends less time in his office limiting his availability to both teachers and students. An assistant principal may have handled inquiries in the past, but those positions have been cut to save money. “A lot of principals and superintendents are mad about this order coming down from New York State without any funding,” says Mary.
While teachers must deal with all the testing, they still have to deal with children who have behavior problems and family issues. Last year, one of the children in Mary’s class had his father in jail the entire year. “His mom had a hard time with him,” Mary says. Already this year, on the second day of school, Mary was on the phone with one mother whose son was acting out in class. He’s now on a behavior plan but still takes up much of Mary’s time and energy.
Mary is also required to keep up an online portfolio, posting items in a sort of educational Pinterest to show her principal and superintendent what she’s been doing. “At a meeting this week, two kindergarten teachers told us about how they attended a professional business meeting in the village,” Mary says. “My principal asked, `Did you take a picture of yourselves so you can submit it for your portfolio?’ I looked at him and said, `Seriously?’” Mary has been featured in her local newspaper numerous times for the innovative things she’s done in her classroom and could post dozens of items each day. “I have no time to do things like that when I’m trying to stay afloat with all that I have to do with just being a teacher.” Mary calls the online postings “nonsense” that have nothing to do with being a good teacher.
There are bright spots ahead. In 2013, the Common Core State Standards will kick in, providing “a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them,” according to the group’s mission statement. Forty-five states and Washington D.C. have adopted these guidelines, with Alaska, Texas, Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska still holding back. Common Core is a state-led effort that was coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The standards will mean that children will follow the same curriculum no matter where they live, increasingly important in our mobile society.
Mary says that her district has held many professional development sessions on Common Core so that she feels well prepared for making the transition. “One big change is that 50 percent of what we read to our kindergarten students has to be nonfiction,” she says. The aim is to teach children to process information and develop critical thinking skills. In the spring, Mary says her class will research lady bugs and write a report about the activity.
Common Core may help turn things around for teachers and their students, but right now, morale among teachers has never been lower. “I went out with two of my teacher friends Friday night,” Mary says. “They both want to quit, but in New York State, they will get a pension after putting in so much time, so they are in it now for their pensions.” Even Mary, who once saw herself devoting her entire career to teaching, has moments when she thinks about leaving and trying something else. “It’s not about the kids anymore, and it’s been frustrating,” she says.
It’s disheartening, she says, to see that the community no longer supports and respects teachers. Outsiders think teachers put in short days, leaving when school is dismissed, enjoying restful weekends, and a two-month summer vacation. Not so, says Mary. In her school, she says, most teachers work long hours, noting that she left at 9 p.m. recently, and at least one other teacher was also there. Answering emails and phone calls from parents also takes up evening time. Teachers may have nothing on Wall Street executives and lawyers where long hours are concerned, but many experienced teachers make under $50,000 while being required to hold advanced degrees. “We put in a lot of hours, bring our work home,” Mary says. “Sunday night, I’m doing my lesson plans.” Because of budget cuts, teachers must spend their own money on supplies. “We spend money on our rooms,” she says. “Half the furniture in my homeroom is mine. We don’t even get books for our students. It’s sad.”