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Quiz Time! Are You Ready for Kindergarten?

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At the end of this week our youngest daughter will finally be finished with preschool. If you haven't had a child in daycare/preschool recently, you might not know that kids "graduate" (brought to you by JostensTM!) from preschool now; it's the first step on the long haul to student achievement.

At any rate, take it from me: we're relieved that our daughter is finally turning five, making her eligible for kindergarten. Anything to make the private tuition payments stop. But her transition is coming with a new cost as we slog through the great national experiment in educational accountability. Kindergarten, of course, translates literally from the German as "children's garden," and was given that name by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator, to reflect his belief that children are like plants that must be nurtured and cultivated properly in order to grow. It's a wonderful metaphor, really: the teacher, as gardener, taking care to create the right conditions for children to thrive in, protecting them from threats and supporting them with plenty of nutritious "food" and sunshine. As the "Froebelweb" puts it, kindergarten was initially focused on three things: playing with toys to encourage creative play, participating in games and dances to promote healthy activity, and opportunities to observe and nurture plants in a garden to stimulate awareness of the natural world. 

How times have changed. These days, kindergarten seems to have begun morphing into something else. We spend a lot of time now asking if kids are "ready" for kindergarten, but it might also be worth asking if parents are ready, too. What, exactly, defines readiness for kindergarten? Let's find out.

Try taking this little quiz to see if you are. It looks like a questionnaire but, believe me—it's a quiz. If you don't have a child of your own, think of another kid—a niece or nephew, a neighbor—and go from there. Ready?

A. Pregnancy & Birth

  1. Child born at: ____________________ City: ___________ State: ____________
  2. How many week gestation? _______ (Full term 40 weeks)
  3. Birth Weight: _____ lbs ____ oz
  4. Type of Delivery (choose one): Normal, Assisted Forceps, Cesarean, Other
    1. If Cesarean, reason _____________________________
  5. Any difficulties during pregnancy? Chronic disease, Trauma, Persistent nausea/vomiting, Toxemia, Infection, Other:
  6. Is this your (including miscarriages): 1st child, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, or ____

B. Early Childhood

  1. As an infant was the baby: Overly quiet, Irritable, Demanding, Normal
  2. Breast Fed: Yes or No   How long? ____
  3. Bottle Fed: Yes or No  Type of Formula _______ How long _______
  4. Colic: Yes or No  How long? _____

C. Developmental

  1. Sat up at _____ months; Crawled at _____ months; Walked at _____ months
  2. Spoke at _____ months; Spoke in sentences/phrases at _____ months
  3. Toilet trained: For urine at _____ months; For bowels at _____months
    1. Any patterns of bedwetting or "accidents" since then?

D. Behavior & Personality

  1. Activity level: Excessive, Average, Fairly Inactive
  2. Clumsiness noted: Yes or No; Coordinated: Yes or No; Tires Easily: Yes or No; Rarely Tires: Yes or No
  3. Disposition: Outgoing: Yes or No; Shy: Yes or No; Average: Yes or No; Anxious: Yes or No
  4. Impulsive: Yes or No; Thinks Before Acts: Yes or No; Reserved: Yes or No
  5. Attention Span: Average, Short, Long
  6. Discipline Needed: Seldom, Frequently, Average
  7. Sleep Habits: Still Naps? Yes or No; Sleeps through the night? Yes or No; In his/her own bed? Yes or No; Nightmares? Yes or No

How are we doing so far? Just a few more questions:

We recognize that parents are knowledgeable experts when it comes to understanding their child. We ask the following questions about characteristics and experiences that are particularly important to early childhood success.

  1. Which, if any, of these experiences has your child had?
    1. Pre-school
    2. Daycare
    3. Babysitter
  2. Check the places your child has visited:
    1. Grocery store
    2. Farm
    3. Factory
    4. Ocean/beach
    5. Museum
    6. Circus
    7. Airport
    8. Zoo
    9. Fair/carnival
    10. Mountains
    11. Library
  3. I usually read to my child (choose one): Every day, once a week, on special occasions
  4. Additional information that will assist us with caring for and educating your child: 

Exhausted yet? We were too. These are actual questions that appeared in the registration packet when we signed our daughter up for kindergarten; I even tried to be faithful to the punctuation and capitalization rules observed on the questionnaire. Scoring the quiz is easy. No matter what answers you gave, you can rest assured they will be analyzed by professionals with deep knowledge of child development and your child will be placed accordingly in academic reading and math groups where s/he will receive differentiated instruction tailored to his or her individual learning needs. Over here, we have the C-sections; that group there is full of kids who have visited factories, museums, and airports, but haven't yet had the opportunity to go to the circus. Over here, we have the kids who have had their clumsiness noted but have an "average" disposition and have been prone to bedwetting "accidents." Note the quote marks: were those really "accidents"...?

It all seemed a little absurd to us. Not only are the questions written in an amateurish way—many of them are fragments or single words, and the answer choices make little sense, so trying to establish any kind of "scientific" pattern in the respones, let alone an educational one, seems far-fetched—but they are also pretty invasive. Is it necessary for our daughter's school to know why she was born via C-section, if indeed she was? Do they need to know how many miscarriages her mother had? What educational value can be elicited from that information? Would it matter if our daughter had never visited a grocery store? Would that change how she's taught, or how she learns? And, speaking of that, since when does going to the circus or visiting a factory count as an experience that is "particularly important to childhood success"? The implication clearly is that not taking your child to visit any of the places listed is setting her up to fail. Guess I'd better get on the horn with the Ringling Brothers.

The only conclusion we could reasonably draw from the questionnaire was the obvious one: the school district was looking for clues to determine a child's socioeconomic status, which would then be useful in determining his or her academic placement. We could practically hear the sorting machine humming in the background. The district probably really believes it's doing kids a favor by identifying their "deficiencies" before placing them in a classroom setting. But is it?

In the age of "bubble kids"—those are the kids who are just on either side of the proficiency line, passing or failing—even proficiency is almost never enough, and the obsession with it has pushed many schools to focus excessively on remediation instead of enrichment. That's why I looked askance at this questionnaire: it wasn't designed, apparently, to gather useful information about school readiness, but to begin the process of determining which kids would start out ahead and which would start out behind. If we're beginning to make those decisions based on a questionnaire as poorly written as this one, it's time to hit the pause button. No, actually, it's time to hit the stop button. And maybe the rewind button too.

Want to know the factors that actual predict school readiness? This pamphlet produced by the National Association of School Psychologists is a good place to start. Note that trips to the circus, questions about breast feeding, and the relative frequency with which discipline is "needed" don't come up anywhere. Note also these lines:

Most adults remember kindergarten as a relaxed opportunity to learn the formal reading and math skills needed for first grade through guided play activities. However, because current public policy demands that schools meet higher standards, young children today often find themselves in increasingly rigorous academic programs beginning as early as kindergarten. 

"Current public policy" could demand something else. In fact, policy doesn't demand anything; people do. At some point we can make the choice to refocus kindergarten in a way that respects the varied states of development kindergarteners are in. (And, for the record, this does not have to mean abandoning the project to establish reasonable, but challenging, learning standards in other grades.) We could start by choosing to remember that school is a social activity too, that learning to read and do math don't happen at the same time for all kids, and that there's more to life than reading and math to boot. Maybe then we could save those trips to the circus for the family scrapbook—not the registration packet.

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