recent study of public school teachers confirmed what many educators — and parents — have long suspected: Kindergarten is the new first grade, with teachers placing greater emphasis on academics and less time on arts instruction and opportunities for play.      

Researchers from the University of Virginia who conducted the study reached this conclusion by comparing kindergarten classrooms between 1998 and 2010, using data from more than 5,200 instructors who taught kindergarten and first grade in the late 1990s and in 2010. The study, released in January, found that kindergarten teachers in 2010 had much higher expectations for their students’ academic achievement than instructors had in 1998, and that kindergarten classrooms in 2010 were similar to first-grade classes in the 1990s. In addition, 80 percent of respondents who taught in 2010 believed their students should learn to read in kindergarten, compared with only 31 percent who taught in 1998.

“Young children’s first experiences in school are quite different today than they were in the late ’90s,” says Daphna Bassok, co-author of the study. “We were surprised to see just how drastic the changes have been over a short period of time.”    

The study was the latest installment in an ongoing debate about how to best prepare kindergartners for future academic achievement. Some educators maintain there is no evidence to prove that children must learn to read in preschool or kindergarten in order to become strong readers and be successful in school. In 2009, the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood released its own study, “Crisis in the Kindergarten,” which concluded: “Kindergartners are now under great pressure to meet inappropriate expectations, including academic standards that until recently were reserved for first grade.” 

But many other educators argue that today’s kindergartners are more than ready to perform academic work: “Time spent on academic content, and even time spent on increasingly challenging academic content should not automatically be seen as a threat to kindergarten,” concluded the National Association for the Education of Young Children in a paper released in 2014. “Children learn from birth, so kindergarten should provide children with opportunities and supports appropriate for where they are. … Kindergartners (and all young children) can learn academic content that is appropriate to where they are developmentally.”

Julie Reynoso, assistant superintendent for elementary education in the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), expresses a similar opinion. Reynoso disagrees with the characterization of kindergarten as the new first grade. And she argues that art instruction and playtime are among the many elements PUSD teachers are using in kindergarten classes. “A good handful of teachers do believe in the element of play — doing musicals or plays, [children] writing their own scripts,” she says.

She notes, however, that kindergarten instruction, like all elementary and secondary school instruction, has changed in recent years because of California’s adoption of the Common Core Standards. Developed by education officials and governors in 48 states, Common Core is a set of standards for kindergarten through 12th-graders in mathematics and in English language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science and technical subjects. These standards aim to prepare high school graduates to take for-credit introductory classes in two- and four-year colleges or to enter the workforce. The standards are being used in 42 states, including California, where the state Board of Education adopted them in 2010, and PUSD began implementing them in the 2010-11 school year. 

Some of Common Core’s reading skills for kindergartners were traditionally taught in the first grade, such as recognizing and naming all of the upper and lower case letters of the alphabet, knowing number names and counting in sequence. Kindergarten students are also expected to know the primary sounds of consonants and the long and short sounds of the five major vowels, and to sight-read frequently used words (such as the, of, to, you, she, is and are). 

“We are wanting [kindergarten] children to read,” says Reynoso. “We are wanting them to be prepared. We don’t want them to read as first-graders; we want them to read appropriately as kindergartners.”

Kindergarten curriculum, she adds, seeks to improve children’s oral development by providing opportunities for kids to discuss, explain and ask questions about their class work. And in accordance with Common Core, Reynoso says teachers are no longer “expected to have all-day directed teaching.” Instead, instructors now provide “more of a distributed opportunity for children to partake in their own learning” and for students to collaborate on school work, she said.   

PUSD kindergartners are assigned homework, which Reynoso describes as “very family-oriented.” These activities include home-based scavenger hunts. Students also draw pictures of their families and use these pictures to tell other students about the most important people in their lives. 

Students in kindergarten through the fifth grade are also expected to read every night. “In kindergarten it is really important to read with an adult,” says Reynoso. “Reading is instrumental.” Parents are encouraged to read books to their children that are either written in English or in the parents’ native language.

Revisions in the kindergarten curriculum are not only attributable to the Common Core Standards. Kindergarten has also changed because today’s kindergartners have changed. The number of children enrolled in preschool has climbed in recent years, and some of these preschoolers know the names of numbers and the letters of the alphabet before they start kindergarten. In addition, many kindergartners are attending full-day instead of half-day classes. PUSD’s kindergarten classes are all full time, with children in school for six-and-a-half hours each weekday.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act, enacted by the California Legislature in September 2010, has also altered PUSD’s kindergarten instruction. Before the law was adopted, children who turned 5 years old before Dec. 2 were able to enroll in kindergarten. The law changed that date to Sept. 1, with the new age requirement phased in over three years starting in 2012-13. The law also requires school districts to provide transitional kindergarten classes for students turning 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2; parents can choose whether or not to enroll their youngsters in these classes. 

PUSD offers a full-day transitional kindergarten (TK) class at seven elementary schools (Jefferson, Longfellow, Madison, McKinley, Norma Coombs, Washington and Willard), with 24 students in each class. TK provides what Reynosa describes as a developmentally appropriate curriculum that differs from kindergarten classes for the older students. “There’s lots of play, lots of [personal] interactions, lots of collaborations [with other students]. We are teaching children how to socialize,” she explains.  

TK aims to make students socially and emotionally competent. The Transitional Kindergarten Implementation Guide, a resource for California public school administrators and teachers, lists four elements of social-emotional competence: emotional regulation, or “children’s ability to control behavior and respond appropriately to experiences”; social knowledge, or “information about social norms and customs that enables children to participate successfully in the classroom community”; social skills, which are the “appropriate strategies children apply when they interact with others”; and social dispositions, which are created when “the environment and [children’s] innate temperamental variations combine.”     

In addition to its TK classes, PUSD created a pilot Expanded Transitional Kindergarten, a full-day program that was launched in January at Cleveland and McKinley Elementary Schools. ETK is open to students who turn 5 between Dec. 3 and the following March 31. Students who complete TK and ETK then enter regular kindergarten classes, enabling them to receive two years of kindergarten instruction. 

Reynoso says PUSD is not aiming to make kindergarten the new first grade but instead seeks to offer coursework that is appropriate to 4- and 5-year-old children. “We have all these types of options in place in our school district that deepens their knowledge, so they are actually more successful. People will say that it [kindergarten] has shifted, but it’s based on what kids can do.”