The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at Mario.Koran@voiceofsandiego.org.
Earlier this week, Scott Lewis wrote an alarming piece about the shock one East County parent experienced when she sent her kid to kindergarten, only to discover that he was already behind.
The story freaked out a lot of parents, myself included. Every parent wants to make sure they’re doing everything they can to prepare their kids for school. And I’m sure, at one point or another, most are racked with fear they’re not doing it right.
Adding to the anxiety are the new standards aligned with Common Core. We understand what kindergarten looked like for us. But this new Common Core stuff sounds confusing and hard. Like the bar for kindergarten has risen to improbable heights and parents now have to fashion their own ladders to help children reach it.
The only thing I remember from kindergarten is the giant, child-sized mixing bowl I’d sit in while other kids spun me around and around. For me, kindergarten meant play. But some parents, like the one from East County, worry that kindergarten now means homework and reading drills. Lame.
The natural follow-up questions to all this are what, exactly, parents can do to support their kids – short of hiring a tutor for kindergarten – or what to look for in a quality preschool.
That’s what motivated one parent and reader to send in the following question.
Question: Does Common Core apply to preschool too? Where I can look to find the Common Core standards for kindergarten? – Diana Ross, reader, parent
Common Core has been politicized and ridiculed to the point it’s difficult to make sense of what it means for your kid.
On the one side, you’ve got parents and comedians tweeting absurd-looking homework assignments. You’ve got Diane Ravitch – an education historian lionized by vocal factions of disgruntled teachers – writing in the New York Times that Common Core has already proven to be a failure because it hasn’t reduced the achievement gap in the few short years teachers have been actually implementing it.
But Common Core means something very different to the experts and administrators from the San Diego County Office of Education who are helping schools adjust to the new standards.
To them, Common Core is about a paradigm shift away from brute-force memorization and toward critical-thinking skills. And just like we need to update our computers when a better program comes along, it’s well past time we update curriculums based on what kids will need for the 21st century.
It’s hard to say exactly why the two perspectives are so far apart. Cynthia Craft, a program coordinator with the San Diego County Office of Ed’s early education department, wonders if teachers conflate Common Core with something else.
“I think for some teachers Common Core has become a catch-all phrase that represents everything they’re frustrated with about the system,” Craft said.
Lucia Garay, executive director of the early education department, said it’s helpful to remove the phrase “Common Core” and think of the new standards as expectations. That is, when you look at the actual standards (read: what kids should know), you need to think of them as what students should know by the end of the year.
And when you look at the standards this way, they’re really not so intimidating. Take a look at the new reading standards for kindergarten, which are posted on the California Department of Education website:
Nowhere in the standards does it say kindergartners will be handed a book on Day One and be expected to immediately read and make sense of it. It doesn’t mention homework. Instead, it says students should be able to engage with the texts, ask relevant questions and make predictions.
If that still sounds weird, imagine that you’re home reading to your daughter about a hungry caterpillar. She’s following the words and pictures. Then, midway through, you close the book and ask what she thinks will happen next. That caterpillar just ate a gang of apples and now he’s in a cocoon. What do you think he’ll do now?
None of this is particularly new or fancy. It might even be how you’re already reading to your children. But asking kids to make predictions or draw conclusions requires higher-order, critical-thinking skills. If kids can make predictions based on what you read, it shows they’re absorbing and engaging with texts. It’s the kind of thing older learners and adults do every day, even if by now it’s unconscious.
You might also be relieved to hear the new standards don’t mean a ban on play. Play-based learning is critical for young children because allows them to be guided by natural curiosity. Even better for kids is guided play: What do you think will happen if we take away the orange blocks from this tower?
That said, teachers are still going to see new crops of students, many of whom won’t be prepared for kindergarten.
Kindergarten teachers have always seen wildly different levels of readiness, and it’s always been their job to take kids from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and try to get them on the same page by first grade.
Which brings us to the question that’s harder to answer: What can parents do to get their kids ready for kindergarten?
There’s a lot of debate – and little consensus – about what this means in California. A good bit of it comes down to the fact that social and emotional skills are difficult to gauge. And there’s no single measure for readiness, said Garay.
Adding to the confusion are the gaps in the data. According to Census data crunched by the group Children Now, only 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County attend preschool. But that information is more of a best guess.
And we don’t know what percentage of kids in the county attend state preschools versus private preschools, which makes it hard to know what kids are actually learning in preschool.
To address this problem, San Diego is one of several counties to develop a quality rating system for preschools. The ratings go from 1 to 5, based on how teachers assess students’ progress, how much education teachers and staff have had and whether the physical surroundings are set up for play and interaction.
As I wrote last year, that means parents who have kids in one the 40-plus preschools in the county that participate in the system (participation isn’t mandatory), can walk into to preschools and ask to see their rating, and how they got their numbers.
The big limitation is that subsidized preschools are a lot more likely to implement the system than are private preschools. But subsidized preschools have limited seats. And due to ridiculously low income eligibility requirements, a lot of parents can’t get into subsidized preschools.
“A family of four, where mom and dad work full time but make minimum wage, would make too much money to be eligible for subsidized preschool,” said Garay. The eligibility requirements are based on standard median income from 2007 and haven’t been adjusted for inflation.
And one of the unintended consequences of the minimum wage increase is that it could push more families above the income cap, making their kids ineligible for subsidized preschool, she said.
Tragically, if districts can’t find enough parents who are interested and eligible for subsidized preschool, those seats simply sit empty. In 2015, more than 700 preschool slots went unfilled in San Diego Unified.
You may still be wondering what preschoolers should actually be learning to be prepared for kindergarten. There are no Common Core standards for preschool. But the California Department of Education provides a lot of material (three volumes) about what kids should be learning there. And in recent years, educators have been working to align that preschool framework with what kids need for kindergarten.
In short, children should be learning how to recognize words and numbers, socialize with other students and regulate their emotions. In that sense, what preschoolers need today isn’t so different from what you needed when you were in preschool.
VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.