Pro-Standards Blogger Takes On Times’ Kindergarten “Play” Coverage

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NJ Left Behind blogger Laura Waters took the NYT’s Motoko Rich to task (Fact-Checking Mokoto Rich), claiming that Rich’s latest piece about kindergarten trends is not only factually inaccurate when it comes to things like kindergarteners’ attention spans but also “perhaps unwittingly, recites a meme of those who resent higher standards for young students” (which is that young children are being pushed too hard).

But as you’ll see, Rich’s stated intention was simply to point out that some districts and states are trying to re-balance the kindergarten experience away from worksheets and drills and back towards play. The disagreement between Rich and Waters boils down to whether you believe kindergarten has swung too far towards rigor and academic skills or whether you think that such a thing is nowhere near to having happened yet in most places — and to a certain extent whether your focus is on the needs of middle- and lower-income communities or wealthier ones. 

Or, as historian Sherman Dorn quips, “Is play up or down?”

Rich’s June 9 piece describes efforts to bring play back into kindergarten in suburban districts and a few states like Vermont, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Washington. Rich sketches out a trend in which schools have “curtailed physical and art education in favor of longer blocks for reading and math instruction to help improve test scores,” starting in kindergarten — and makes the case for purposeful play as part of the mix. 

She ends the article with this quote from a teacher:  “With the Common Core, this has been pushed and pushed and pushed that kids should be reading, sitting and listening,” she said. “Five-year-olds need to play and color. They need to go out and sing songs.”

In her response, Waters gives Rich credit for acknowledging that lower-income districts call for balance in the piece, which includes this section:

Educators in low-income districts say a balance is critical. They warn that unlike students from affluent families, poorer children may not learn the basics of reading and math at home and may fall behind if play dominates so much that academics wither.

“Middle-class parents are doing this anyway, so if we don’t do it for kids who are not getting it at home, then they are going to start at an even greater disadvantage,” said Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford.

But Waters’ over all take on the piece is that it focuses too much on the need to restore play in the primary school classroom rather than the needs of low- and middle-income children for more academic instruction than they have had in the past.

Do public schools serve all students? Or do they structure learning objectives around one economic cohort that may dominate their enrollment? And how do common standards fit into this?… I don’t know the answer to this, except that the worst solution is to calibrate standards and accountability based on community wealth.

She also calls Rich out for letting stand (as the “kicker” — the last quote in the piece) the claim that kindergarteners can only focus for five minutes at a time.

Schools have recognized for a long time, well before the Common Core, that students, even kindergarteners, are capable of reading and sitting and listening.  The average attention span of a five-year old isn’t five minutes, as Rich cites, but more like 15-20 minutes. Let’s at least get our facts straight.

Rich’s Twitter response? “Weird. story’s main premise is that setting up tradeoff between academic rigor & play is a false dichotomy.”

I can see Rich’s point. Previously, she tweeted about the piece “That you sound you hear is the sound of a pendulum swinging [towards play].” And also: “Instead of worksheets and drills, sand tables, art, Candy Land and blocks.”

And as reporters point out to me all the time, how readers react to news coverage often has to do with previous, more egregious stories that have come down the pike, and with sensitivities that we all develop when engaged in ideological battles over a prolonged period of time. Waters reads the Rich story as an anti-standards piece focused on the needs and preferences of affluent suburban parents. But maybe Waters is reacting to other, previous stories.

All that being said, I can see how Waters reads the story the way she does. Rich could have done better making sure that her intended focus on re-balancing kindergarten with both play and “work.” It’s not at all clear to me, reading the Times piece or from what I’ve read elsewhere, that kindergarten has actually gone so far over towards worksheets and drills as Rich seems to believe has taken place nationally, in which case it’s unclear whether the pendulum is swinging back towards play or never really left. 

And, even if it’s accurate in terms of describing kindergarteners’ attention spans, the kicker quote — which journalists often select to stand in for their own views — is inflammatory from the point of view of a pro-standards, pro-Common Core advocate.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.