Has Kindergarten Changed or are Kids Smarter?

Are Kindergarten Kids Smarter These Days?

I knew kids in my kids’ Kindergarten class who could read The Magic Tree House series before they entered elementary school.  For others, carry addition was not a problem.  I thought my kids were way behind because they would enter Kindergarten barely reading and unsure of what number came after 99.  The pressure for Kindergarten academics, I always thought, came from the standardized testing starting in 3rd grade and so Kindergarten, for many classrooms, started to look a lot like 1st grade.  I am actually o.k. with that because it worked for my kids.  Our elementary school is very strict about the cut off date of “you-must-be-five-years-old-by-August 31-no-exceptions.”  I actually thought this is just the new world we live in, but maybe the old ways are best.

Full article here.  Key paragraphs below.


Kids Haven’t Changed; Kindergarten Has

New data support a return to “balance” in kindergarten

By LAURA PAPPANO from The Harvard Education Letter

  • In the ongoing battle over kindergarten—has exploratory play been shunted aside for first-grade-style pencil-and-paper work?—one of the nation’s oldest voices in child development is weighing in with historic data.
  • Given the current generation of children that—to many adults at least—appear eerily wise, worldly, and technologically savvy, these new data allowed Gesell researchers to ask some provocative questions: Have kids gotten smarter? Can they learn things sooner? What effect has modern culture had on child development?
  • The surprising answers—no, no, and none. Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute, says despite ramped-up expectations, including overtly academic work in kindergarten, study results reveal remarkable stability around ages at which most children reach cognitive milestones such as being able to count four pennies or draw a circle. For the study, 92 examiners conducted 40-minute one-on-one assessments with 1,287 children ages 3–6 at 56 public and private schools in 23 states.
  • For teachers, the study provides some concrete guidance for understanding how child development meshes with student learning. For example, says Guddemi, children must be able to see and understand the oblique line in a triangle to recognize some letters in the alphabet. Until children can draw a triangle they cannot perceive angled lines in, say, the letter “K,” nor can they write it, or recognize it when printed in different fonts, she says.
  • What’s tricky, says Guddemi, is that children can be trained to perform tasks (called “splinter skills”), such as writing names or counting. But just because “April” can pen her name doesn’t mean she can perceive letters with oblique angles. “You can train them, but the knowledge and understanding—the true learning—has not happened,” she says. “Our country has this hang up that if the child can perform, that they know.”
  • The perception that “more input is always better,” may be misguided, agrees David Daniel, psychology professor at James Madison University and managing editor of the journalMind, Brain, and Education. “The four-year-old has a four-year-old brain and a six-year-old has a six-year-old brain. There are certain things connecting in a six-year-old brain that are still being worked on in the four-year-old brain,” he says. Serious academics in kindergarten? “They can be teaching it,” says Daniel, “but the question is: Is the child learning it?”
  • In many districts, worries about benchmarks and test scores have made kindergarten less play-centered and developmental gaps more pronounced. When some children couldn’t handle expectations and were disrupting class, the William H. Frazier Elementary School in Fallbrook, Calif. began “Preppie Kindergarten” to separate those children who are ready for today’s kindergarten from those who are not. These children spend two years in kindergarten rather than one.
  • Not everyone, however, believes that expectations and child development are out of sync. Trisha D’Amore, supervisor for K–12 literacy for New Haven Public Schools, says it’s time to recognize that children’s lives today are different. Second graders care for kindergarteners at home and children are exposed to more life challenges and responsibilities in general, she says.

Laura Pappano is a writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Education Letter.  She is the author ofInside School Turnarounds; Urgent Hopes, Unfolding Storiesto be published in November 2010 by Harvard Education Press.

By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. I’ve always wondered why five-year olds need to be “ready” for school instead of schools “ready” for five- year olds.

    • I am personally torn between Kindergarten being “preschool” versus “first grade.” I think a combination is perfect tailored to each child but that, of course, is unrealistic with the grim reality of today’s classroom size. But there are a few magical Kindergarten teachers that can pull this off no matter what the size of their class is.

  2. WendyW

    “it’s time to recognize that children’s lives today are different. Second graders care for kindergarteners at home and children are exposed to more life challenges and responsibilities in general, she says.”

    BALONEY! In general, kids today are more protected and less responsible than any previous generation. They ARE under more pressure to perform, in ways that previous generations never had to deal with. I think the appearance of being more precocious is because those kids that are on the early end of the readiness spectrum are more likely to be exposed to teaching that earlier generations never saw before school age.

    • Hi Wendy W,
      That’s a good point. Kids are under more pressure to perform and are being to exposed to books at perhaps younger ages and for a longer period of time than in previous generations. But perhaps some kids are more responsible as well. I would imagine it’s based on socio economic factors such as two parents working multiple jobs.
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