Can Five-Year-Olds Really Meet Common Core State Standards?

As kindergarten teachers grapple with that question, librarians become “important resource” and find new opportunities for teaching the youngest students.
  The debate over academic expectations in kindergarten has been around for decades. But now, in 42 states, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have added a new intensity to the conversation over what five-year-olds can accomplish. Thinkstock-530483261KinderstressA set of K–12 expectations in English language arts and literacy (ELA) and math, the CCSS were intended to help students develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills needed to succeed in college and career. But they’ve been the subject of a growing backlash. Concerns include a lack of guidance for kindergarten teachers on how to implement the standards, confusion among parents over what the standards mean, and expectations that the standards will emphasize drilling exercises over play-based learning, according to a recent brief from the National Institute for Early Education Research based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

Key shifts in ELA

The CCSS are often described in terms of “shifts” toward teaching what the standards focus on. Three ELA shifts are often brought up. 1) Students are expected to spend more time with “content-rich nonfiction” texts, about a 50-50 balance between literary selections and nonfiction in the elementary grades. Librarians say that since the adoption of the Common Core, kindergarten teachers’ requests for books are much more narrow, leaning towards specific nonfiction subjects, such as farms, community helpers, or the color yellow. Students, they say, are showing enthusiasm for the increased focus on nonfiction. “Their eyes light up when they get a book about penguins or bears,” says Robbie Nickel, a librarian at Sage Elementary School in Spring Creek, NV. “They like the real stuff as much as the fiction.” 2) Students must provide evidence from the texts to support their answers instead of relying on their experiences, prior knowledge, or lucky guesses. This same evidence will be expected in writing. 3) An emphasis on more complex texts and academic language. That’s the one that especially begs the question: What does that look like in a classroom of five-year-olds?

Appropriate reading expectations debated

Part of that emphasis on more complex texts is this edict: kindergarteners should be able to “read emergent reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Teachers such as Robbie Torney, who works at a charter school in Oakland, CA, says the CCSS have exposed all of his kindergarteners to higher-level books. “We’re coming out of a time when a lot of instruction was done with leveled texts,” he says. “Before the standards, if you were a struggling reader, you were never given the opportunity to work with complex texts.” But that also means, he adds, that he’s reading with the students, breaking up the text into smaller parts, having them read with a partner, and providing other types of support. “It is nice to be able let families know that their child is working toward these expectations,” Torney says. “If we don’t even try, then students have zero chance to do those things.” On the other side of the issue, however, are teachers such as Susan Sluyter, a former kindergarten teacher in the Cambridge (MA) Public Schools. Her resignation letter appeared in The Washington Post: “Each year I have had less and less time to teach the children I love in the way I know best—and in the way child development experts recommend,” she wrote. “I reached the place last year where I began to feel I was part of a broken system that was causing damage to those very children I was there to serve.” Those who argue that reading is an unrealistic expectation for many five-year-olds point to a recent article by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a child development professor emerita at Lesley University. She states that there is little evidence that learning to read in kindergarten is key to later academic success. “A number of long-term studies point to greater gains for students in play-based programs as compared to their peers in academically-oriented preschools and kindergartens in which early reading instruction is generally a key component,” she writes. The International Literacy Association (ILA) provided some guidance. “Kindergarten and grade one children should have opportunities to engage with complex texts, but this best takes place in the context of having those texts read to them, a practice that supports their language development and emerging comprehension skills,” the members of the ILA Common Core State Standards Committee wrote. Others say the needs of students who might have reading disabilities are being overlooked.   “We need to be vigilant and vocal about the consequences of the CCSS rollouts for students who do not learn written language easily and naturally,” says Louisa Moats, a consultant, reading expert, and vice president of the board of directors for the International Dyslexia Association. “The implication that these students will learn to read better if they are simply handed more complex and difficult texts, and asked to function like students who learn to read easily, is wishful and harmful thinking.”

Key shifts in math

The math CCSS in kindergarten emphasize addition and subtraction, working with numbers up to 19, and beginning understanding of place value and early geometry. The skills are designed to build on each other. Experts say this allows teachers to better adjust their instruction up or down, depending on students’ needs. The standards also call for a deeper understanding of math concepts—for example, knowing that the last number counted represents how many items are in a set. Until young children grasp this, they often restart at one when asked how many of something they have. The CCSS also include eight Standards for Mathematical practice, the behaviors students will need to show as they apply what they are learning and work to solve problems. “As early as pre-K and kindergarten, students need to attend to precision, construct viable arguments, and persevere in problem solving,” says Hollie Becker, the assistant superintendent of instructional services for the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District in Ben Lomond, CA, mentioning three of the eight practices. “If they don't, the implication is that they will have to be retaught to approach problems at a later grade, and when better to start when students are so fresh to school and haven't yet learned bad habits?”

‘A fine time to be a librarian’

While the standards might be putting more pressure on kindergarten teachers, school librarians say that’s when they can help. Shannon Wright, a librarian at Southwestern Elementary School in Jamestown, NY, teaches almost all of the Reading Standards for Literature and Informational Text in the library. “Common Core has in many ways emphasized and elevated our role in the educational community by putting what we do in the standards,” Wright says. “It’s a fine time to be a librarian since the curriculum we teach is now considered essential.” Nickel even does library assessments on standards, such as print concepts, which she says can take some of the burden off classroom teachers. Librarians say they are also supporting kindergarten instruction in math with books on shapes, counting, and other topics. “Math is a huge opportunity in literature,” says Nancy Cappelloni, the president of the California Kindergarten Association (CKA). The Common Core is also bringing more opportunity to teach kindergarteners science and technology. At Bemus Point Elementary, south of Buffalo, NY, librarian Sarah Deault uses digital graphic organizers with students to track their learning and BookFlix, an online resource that matches video versions of classic storybooks with nonfiction texts. At Wright’s school, storytime means an “ebook projected on an interactive whiteboard,” maybe followed by research using a “kid-friendly database,” she says. “This is the world that we live in, and our students need to embrace the use of technology whenever practical.” As part of a CCSS lesson on nursery rhymes, Deault also incorporated a popular science activity in which students dropped eggs—representing Humpty Dumpty—packed in small bags with materials meant to cushion the fall—an activity that teachers might not have had time to do in the classroom. Cappelloni sums it up. “The power that [librarians] have is to order and promote books that really address the Common Core standards from a different angle. We know children learn in different ways that some books may speak to,” she says. “Our administrators on a higher level should be looking at our librarians as a really important resource for our teachers.”

The importance of  ‘competent, skilled teachers’

The CCSS don’t have to mean trading center-based or outdoor play for worksheets, especially with skilled teachers at the helm. A perfect example is Kimberly DeMille’s classroom at Concordia Elementary School in Carlsbad, CA. In one of her lessons, featured on the CKA website, students jump their way up a chalk-drawn number line to learn about groups of 10. Jumping backward teaches subtraction. The Milpitas Unified School District, north of San Jose, CA, has begun providing training for pre-K through second-grade teachers in modifying math lessons for the youngest students. “The idea is to assure students are competent in the concepts of math, not in memorizing facts and information,” says Kathy Lincoln, program director for the district’s child development centers. The district also formed a cohort of pre-K to second-grade teachers to use the California preschool standards and the California Common Core standards to create lesson plans that can be “scaled up or down to teach a concept,” Lincoln says. Even Carlsson-Paige makes a point in her article that adequate teacher training is necessary when working with beginning readers. “It is competent, skilled teachers who can best recognize whether a child needs specific support or is progressing more slowly and simply needs more time,” she writes. Librarians say that having time to collaborate with teachers will also allow them to determine how they can best provide the resources needed in the classroom and expand on students’ learning experiences when they come to the library. “As resource and information curators,” Wright says, “we can offer a service to our patrons that connect the materials that we oversee with demands the Common Core has placed upon our teachers and students.”      

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