Renée Dinnerstein's Call to Action: Opt Out!

The landscape of kindergarten has drastically changed during the era of standards-based accountability and high-stakes testing. It is barely recognizable, having succumbed to the pressures of measurement gone berserk.  Young children’s days are now jam-packed with reading, writing and math, as play, art, exploration, recess, and lunch are pushed to the margins.


Renée Dinnerstein, who has spent almost five decades as an early childhood educator, has been watching this phenomenon with alarm.  In the piece, below, which originally appeared at her blog, and is reprinted here with her permission, she offers a critique and call to action. The recipient of the Bank Street Early Childhood Educator of the Year Award in 1999, Dinnerstein is the author of Choice Time—How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play.


By Renée Dinnerstein

It is not unusual to overhear observations such as “kindergarten looks like the new first or second grade” or “what happened to play in kindergarten?”  But in a growing number of schools across the country, we haven’t moved past these observations to take action. So what does this all have to do with the boycotting of high-stakes standardized tests? And why should parents and teachers of young children support what is now well known as the Opt Out movement?

The assessments that third, fourth and fifth graders are  subjected to each year are more about crunching data and less about helping children become stronger, inquisitive, and active learners. Teachers usually do not see the results until it is too late for any information that is helpful for instruction. The exams seem to be designed in ways that do not relate to what children in each grade need to learn. Because there is so much pressure for schools to score high, much class time is spent in teaching to the test.

What does this have to do with kindergarten? Five-year-olds don’t (yet!) take these tests. Nevertheless, while research shows that they learn through play, not through early academic instruction, administrators, pressured to perform, impose inappropriate curricula that early childhood teachers must implement. Young, new teachers, many of whom have not experienced play-based learning themselves, are often at a loss, caught between early childhood’s solid research base and expectations.

In the 2009 report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, Edward Miller and Joan Almon cite the following findings  from Linda Darling-Hammond and Jon Snyder’s research on German kindergartens, published in “Curriculum Studies and the Traditions of Inquiry.”

Long-term research casts doubt on the assumption that starting earlier on the teaching of phonics and other discrete skills leads to better results. For example, most of the play-based kindergartens in Germany were changed into centers for cognitive achievement during a wave of educational reform in the 1970s.

But research comparing 50 play-based classes with 50 early-learning centers found that by age ten the children who had played in kindergarten excelled over the others in a host of ways. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and they were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity and intelligence, oral expression, and industry.  As a result of this study German kindergartens returned to being play-based again.

In the United States, however, the evidence is thrown out the window or ignored, and kindergartens continue to eliminate most, if not all, opportunities for children to play.

Recently, as I was walking down the hallway of a New York City public school, I passed a kindergarten classroom with a weekly schedule posted on the door.   Reading, writing, and math dominated the boxes, punctuated by brief periods of physical education, drama, music, and Spanish.  I wondered if this school day for five- year-old children was becoming more common throughout the city.  I’ve often seen similar schedules where children get free play or choice time for half an hour at the end of the day.

Why aren’t educators and parents connecting the dots between a grueling day in kindergarten and the increase in diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)? Isn’t it obvious that this schedule is closely connected to the hysteria over high test scores and the pressure to meet the Common Core Standards?  Isn’t it obvious why parents of children of all ages should be vociferous supporters of the Opt Out movement?

If we parents, grandparents and educators do not speak up and put pressure on politicians and top education policy makers, then it certainly will be our children who suffer.


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