Kindergarten Teachers Speak Out for Children’s Happiness

How can teachers bring common sense and compassion to education policy?

The research is clear. Academic training in kindergarten has no long-term benefit. In fact, it may cause long-term harm. It does not reduce the education gap between the rich and the poor, which is the usual reason offered for such training. It slightly increases academic test-scores in first grade, but by third grade the benefit is lost and, according to some of the best studies, by fourth grade those subjected to academic kindergartens are doing worse—academically as well as socially and emotionally—than those who were in play-based kindergartens (for some of the evidence, see here).

The views of kindergarten teachers are also clear (see here). I have spoken at many early education conferences over the past several years, and at each one I heard from teachers about unhappy little children who are being deprived of play and forced to do increasing amounts of “seat work.” I also hear regularly from kindergarten teachers who are resigning or taking early retirement because they see that the policies they are forced to enforce are harming children. We are losing our best teachers because they are the ones who are most likely to see what is happening and least likely to tolerate it.

So why do we continue on this trend of depriving little children of play and joyful group activities, from which they learn so much, and subjecting them ever more to meaningless, shallow “academic work,” from which they learn so little? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that the politicians who make education policy and many of the administrators who enforce it know little about children or learning, and don’t pay attention to the two groups of people who do: those who conduct research on child development, and the teachers who see directly how the policies affect children.

There was a time when teachers could use their experience, judgment, and common sense to vary what they did in the classroom to respond to children’s varying individual needs. But now teachers are increasingly seen as tools of the administration, to carry out the policies that constitute the latest fad—so many hours of this and of that, and everything the same for every child regardless of the child’s interests and dispositions. Children are data points, not individuals. This is “No Child Left Behind,” “Common Core,” and, heaven forbid, “Race to the Top.” 

Race to the Top; what a horrid metaphor for education. A race? Everyone is on the same track, seeing how fast they can go? Racing toward what? The top? The top of what? Education is not a race, it’s an amble. Real education only occurs when everyone is ambling along their own path. 

I have often wondered what would happen if the teachers who can see what is happening would stand up and protest, not individually, but together, as a united force. I was fascinated, therefore, to read this past June about the united stand taken that month by kindergarten teachers in Brookline, Massachusetts, not far from my home. Twenty-seven of the 34 public school kindergarten teachers in Brookline signed a letter that they read aloud at a meeting of the Brookline School Committee.

Here, in part, is what the letter said (for the full letter, see here):

The letter was accompanied by a petition of support signed by more than 500 Brookline parents. It garnered a considerable amount of publicity, nationally as well as locally, including this article in The Washington Post. Did it have an effect? 

A new school year is now underway, and I wondered if much has changed in Brookline kindergartens. So, I called Benjamin Kelley, co-president of the Brookline Parents Organization and a supporter of the teachers’ protest. He told me that there have been some small improvements in some of the schools, but all in all little has changed. A request for a full hour of recess every day in kindergarten was turned down. Block academic scheduling still occurs. The Brookline school superintendent resigned suddenly over the summer, though it is not clear that the teachers’ protest had anything to do with it. Currently, there is an interim superintendent while they search for a replacement. 

Maybe serious change will come after a new superintendent is hired? Or maybe not. If not, then I hope the kindergarten teachers will have the courage to do more than write a letter. How about a strike? A strike not for higher pay or other such benefits, but for the welfare of the children and our nation’s future.

By Peter Gray PHD

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