The New First Grade: Kindergarten

Remember kindergarten? Remember the sand table where you poured and measured? The dress-up corner where you pretended to be a “community helper?” The science center where you explored with magnets and sorted pine cones? These kindergarten staples are disappearing. Art and music are fading too. In many ways, kindergarten is becoming the new first grade. According to an AIR analysis of data from U.S. Department of Education’s early childhood longitudinal studies, America’s public school kindergarten has become dramatically more academic.

  • In 1998-99, only 29 percent of kindergartners’ teachers said that children should learn to read in kindergarten. In 2010-11, this rose to 78 percent.
  • In 1998-99, 53 percent of kindergartners were in full-day kindergarten programs, in 2010-11, 81 percent.
  • Even with those extra hours, time for art and music has dwindled. The percentage of kindergartners who have music three or more times a week? Down from 51 to 27 percent. Or art? Down from 54 to 25 percent.
  • The time children spend in whole-group instruction (seated, all paying attention to the teacher at the same time) is up. In 1998-99, 14 percent of kindergartners were in whole group instruction for three hours or more a day. By 2010-11, 30 percent were.
  • The presence of some common kindergarten classroom areas has also declined. Sand and water tables (51 to 27 percent), dramatic play areas (88 to 61 percent), science areas with objects to manipulate (66 to 43 percent).

What are kindergartners learning? They are learning much more advanced skills than kindergartners were learning 12 years earlier.

  • In 1998-99, 48 percent of kindergartners’ teachers considered ‘reading fluently’ too much to expect of kindergartners. In 2010-11, only 10 percent of teachers did. In 2010-11, 90 percent of kindergartners were being taught to read fluently and 41 percent worked on this skill every day.
  • In 2010-11, 97 percent of kindergartners were in classes where “composing and writing complete sentences” was considered a kindergarten skill. Fifty-three percent were working on this every day. Ninety-nine percent of 2010-11 kindergartners were in classes where “using capitalization and punctuation” was considered a kindergarten skill and two-thirds worked on both daily.

Also on the rise are expectations about the skills children need to know to be kindergarten-ready on the first day of school. Many kindergarten teachers consider it “very important” or “essential” that children entering kindergarten already know how to use pencils and paintbrushes (68 percent), know most of the letters of the alphabet (47 percent), and can count to 20 (35 percent). Given these high expectations, the value kindergarten teachers place on preschool is hardly surprising. Eighty-four percent of 2010-11 kindergartners’ teachers agree or strongly agree that “attending preschool is very important for success in kindergarten.” Traditionally, kindergarten was the transition year before formal schooling. If kindergarten is the “new first grade,” is preschool the new “kindergarten?” The conversation about access to high-quality preschool for all children is an important one. For children who do not attend high-quality preschool programs, what chance at success will they have in today’s kindergarten?

This post was written by Jill Walston and Kristin Flanagan, principal researchers with AIR.

Jill Walston
Principal Researcher