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Standardized Tests and Froebel's Original Kindergarten Model


by William H. Jeynes - 2006

The author argues that American educators rely on standardized tests at too early an age when administered in kindergarten, particularly given the original intent of kindergarten as envisioned by its founder, Friedrich Froebel. The author examines the current use of standardized tests in kindergarten and the Froebel model, including his emphasis on moral education, play, and family involvement. This article explains the extent to which research supports the value of Froebel's model. The author asserts how increasingly, over the last four decades, American educators have departed from the Froebel kindergarten rubric supposedly, in part, to compete with Japanese students. Ironically, however, the Japanese still cherish and practice Froebel's original concept. The author contends that American educators should return to the Froebel rubric and provides a vision for doing so.

Unquestionably, American education is pursuing greater testing of all students at every level of education, including kindergarten and first grade (Clark & Clark, 2001; Mason, 1986). In addition, many teachers prepare the latter for the more rigorous standardized assessments that await them in subsequent grades (Liebschner, 2001; Ohanian, 2002). The increased use of testing in younger grades likely relates to the growing number of academically oriented preschools and kindergartens (Ohanian; Saracho, 1986). Social scientists note a general trend to undertake in kindergarten what used to be included in the first grade curriculum, and to do in preschool what previously had been done in the kindergarten curriculum (Deboer, 2002; Saracho).


The problem inherent in this practice is its considerable departure from Froebel’s (the founder of the kindergarten) original concept of pre-first-grade education, on which the American kindergarten is supposedly based (Deboer, 2002; Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000). Froebel did not believe that the purpose of pre-first-grade education should be entirely academic in nature (Deboer; Hughes, 1897). Instead, he envisioned it like a garden in which children grow and become unified with God and ultimately with each other (Deboer, 2002; Ulich, 1957). As such, Froebel conceptualized kindergarten as a place where children developed the personality, discipline, and social skills necessary to succeed in school and society (Graves, 1912; Hyson, 1991).


In this article, I examine the current reliance on and policy issues regarding standardized tests, Froebel’s concept of kindergarten, how America’s chief economic competitors continue to apply it successfully, what caused the United States to move away from the Froebel model, and a vision of the future of kindergarten.


THE CURRENT RELIANCE ON STANDARDIZED ASSESSMENTS IN KINDERGARTEN AND RELATED POLICY ISSUES


AN OVERRELIANCE ON STANDARDIZED ASSESSMENTS


Currently, all states have some standardized assessment of kindergarten students, including the benchmark states of California and New York (Costenbader, Rohrer, & DiFonzo, 2000; Ohanian, 2002; Perrone, 1991). This assessment most frequently occurs at the end of the kindergarten year, but it also takes place during and before entering kindergarten (Costenbader et al.; Ohanian; Perrone). For example, Costenbader, Rohrer, and DiFonzo found that 30% of the New York State schools they examined used standardized screening tests to assess students even before they entered kindergarten. Furthermore, many political and educational leaders are now advocating the testing of all children in Head Start (Lewis, 2003). Although one can argue that this is simply an attempt to assess the effectiveness of Head Start and that this will affect only a small percentage of the kindergarten population, it does constitute standardized assessment. Furthermore, this trend could easily broaden with time.


The tendency for educators to administer standardized assessment appears to be more of a state-initiated phenomenon rather than a movement that is federally sponsored (Ohanian; United States Department of Education, 2002). Nevertheless, the federal movement toward greater standardized testing is fueling the state-initiated tests (Ohanian). None of the recent programs calling for higher standards—America 2000, Goals 2000, and No Child Left Behind—call for standardized assessment at the kindergarten level. Nevertheless, all the primary educational initiatives by both Democrats and Republicans have called for standardized assessments to begin at the third- or fourth-grade level (National Commission on Testing and Public Policy, 1994; Patrick, 1994; United States Department of Education, 2001, 2002).


Many states, including California and New York, are also requiring students to take standardized tests at a younger age than ever before (Costenbader et al., 2000; Ohanian, 2002). As a consequence, these states are systematically preparing their schoolchildren to excel on these exams (Costenbader et al.; Ohanian). The federal government is increasingly emphasizing that schools should be accountable and guarantee that they offer quality education (United States Department of Education, 2001, 2002). This trend is especially apparent in the No Child Left Behind initiative, in which schools are warned that incessant failure to give adequate instruction could ultimate limit federal funding to that school (United States Department of Education, 2001, 2002). Standardized test results are the primary means of measuring school effectiveness (Ohanian; Shepard & Smith, 1988).


Arguably, these federally and state-sponsored educational initiatives attempt to realize noble goals, such as reducing achievement gaps between White and minority students and ensuring that poor students receive a quality education (United States Department of Education, 2001, 2002). However, the emphasis on standardized tests as major instruments carries with it some unintended effects, both generally and at the kindergarten level.


First, schools often use test scores to compare themselves with other schools (Herman & Abedi; 1994; Perrone, 1991; Powell, 1999). Consequently, many administrators pressure teachers to increase student achievement on various standardized tests (Fry, 1998; James & Tanner, 1993), resulting in the “teach to the test” phenomenon (Herman & Abedi; Powell). Although performing well on tests may be important, the danger is that high scores will displace learning as the ultimate goal (Perrone; Powell). Second, certain states rely too heavily on standardized tests to compare students with one another (Fry; Perrone; Powell). Third, the tests ultimately evaluate constructs other than the effectiveness of schools in teaching essential knowledge. Whatever the original intention of the policies that produced an overreliance on standardized tests for kindergartners, it is clear that policy makers need to reassess these policies.


RECESS


The greater emphasis on standardized tests also appears to have a less direct consequence in that it is prompting states to reduce the amount of time allotted for recess. Some school districts in places like California, Virginia, and Chicago have actually eliminated recess (Ohanian, 2002). In some of these areas, like Virginia and Atlanta, recess was eliminated to specifically increase the amount of time that teachers could spend preparing students for tests and increasing their academic skills (Ohanian). Although few would argue against honing the basic skills of young students, eliminating recess in this way is unwise for a number of reasons. First, the role of moral and social development is diminished. Froebel and the overwhelming majority of educational psychologists believe that play serves an important role in child development (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Morgan, 1999; Saracho, 1986). Second, recess allows students’ minds to have a break from long periods of scholastic intensity. Research indicates that such intermissions increase the ease with which children learn concepts (Ohanian). Children’s attention spans are limited, and recess serves to refresh their minds (Ohanian). Third, eliminating or reducing recess can impede children’s physical development. Research indicates that children who are physically active are more likely to do well academically (Blakemore, 2003; Dwyer, Sallis, Blizzard, Lazarus, & Dean, 2001). When teachers crowd out recess, they may impede certain aspects of child development. Clearly, to the extent that the current testing kindergarteners has these effects, current testing policy should be reassessed.


FROEBEL’S CONCEPT OF THE KINDERGARTEN


Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) stands as one of the greatest educators of the 19th century (Morgan, 1999). Froebel opened the first kindergarten in Germany in 1839, and the United States began using his model in the mid-1850s. Froebel believed in a Christian philosophy of striving for unity between people and God (Ulich, 1968) and also in the purity of the child’s spirit. In his concept of kindergarten, he sought to combine these beliefs. As Froebel described it, “Education consists in leading man as a thinking intelligent being growing into a self-conscious and free representation of the inner law of Divine Unity, and in teaching him ways and means thereto” (Doherty, 1977, p. 5).


Froebel believed that 4- and 5-year-old children were still quite immature and generally not ready for the demands of the real world and the academic rigor of elementary school (Morgan, 1999). However, he held that the pre-first-grade years were crucial to children’s development as virtuous human beings and effective students (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Ulich, 1957). This belief grew out of his emphasis on integrity over knowledge in a child’s growth, a view shared by most other educators of his time (Lascarides & Hinitz; Ulich, 1957). To the school leaders of the time like Horace Mann, Johann Pestalozzi, and others, an effective teacher not only encouraged the quest for knowledge, but also tried to produce the kind of children who were loving, kind, and conscientious enough to use that knowledge for the good of humanity (Ulich, 1957). In reference to Pestalozzi, Robert Ulich (1968) noted, “Education was not merely a way of teaching and learning, but the human attempt to participate in the divine plan to unfold the best in individual man and in humanity as a whole” (p. 30).


Froebel further argued that certain types of children performed better in elementary school than others (Downs, 1978; Lilley, 1967). According to Froebel, the differences between students were only partially attributable to differences in their intelligence levels. The larger proportion of academic differences reflected variations in self-discipline, virtue, and maturity (Beatty, 1995; Ulich, 1957). On this basis, Froebel propounded the idea of kindergarten not only as a means of moral education but also as a tool to maximize student preparedness for school (Beatty).


From Froebel’s perspective, children at the pre-first-grade level were best equipped for life and school not by practicing a long array of workbook exercises and drills but by maturing and developing the personality traits most conducive to successful scholarship and citizenship (Ulich, 1957). Indeed, he believed that teachers ideally should develop a kindergarten curriculum dedicated to developing the mind, the spirit, and the body all at the same time (Beatty, 1995; Graves, 1912). To educators like Froebel, Pestalozzi, and Mann, the ultimate goal of early childhood education was growth and maturity. They considered these characteristics absolutely essential to being a thriving citizen and student. Pestalozzi (1901) said, “Only this process of growth leads to real faith and love, the lifting of the sensuous affection toward the level of moral and spiritual maturity” (p. 314).


To be sure, Froebel supported a role for academics in the kindergarten classroom; however, he believed that they should be presented in what today would be called a “developmentally appropriate” way (Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, & Cox, 2000; Shepard, 1991; Spodek, 1991). Cognitive instruction focused on training the senses (Liebschner, 2001; Snider, 1900) and academic subjects couched in nature (Wolfe, 2000). He asserted that if academic subjects were introduced to children in too rigid a way, like instructing them in the formal rules of grammar, children could lose the inherent joy in learning (Hughes, 1897).


Froebel proposed a number of ways that teachers should simultaneously cultivate cognitive advances and sensory development by the use of nature. First, children should be encouraged to create by shaping things from the natural environment (Beatty, 1995; Hughes, 1897). Given his belief in the “divine” in creation (Liebschner, 2001), Froebel held that children grew in the knowledge of God by participating in creative activity (Liebschner).


Second, Froebel advocated the use of what he called “gifts and occupations” to encourage cognitive development (Morgan, 1999; Paciorek & Munro, 1996; Shapiro, 1983; Snider, 1900). He denned “occupations” as activities for children that used material for practice in various phases of a skill. “Gifts,” in turn, furnished the ideas for those activities (Graves, 1912; Morgan, 1999; Paciorek & Munro, 1996).


Third, Froebel asserted that play contributed to the cognitive and moral development of children (Garvey, 1983; Liebschner, 2001; Lilley, 1967; Morgan, 1999; Saracho, 1986; Spodek, 1973; Weston & Turiel, 1983). Naturally, play is a broad term that can include the two means of cognitively based curriculum—creative activity and “gifts in conjunction with occupations.” However, it can also include a wide range of other activities. Froebel believed a kindergarten curriculum rich in play would yield fruitful child development later (Liebschner; West, 2000).


FROEBEL’S BELIEFS ABOUT THE BROADER ROLE OF PLAY


Froebel not only believed in the cognitive advantages of play, but he also declared that it dynamically contributed to a child’s growth (Lilley, 1967). In fact, as Wolfe (2000) noted, play was central to Froebel’s approach. Belying its carefree exterior, Froebel argued that play is actually quite serious (Beatty, 1995; Hughes, 1897), given its important contribution to moral development (Hughes; Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000). He claimed that play was God’s gift to children to train them in the moral and social traits necessary for later adulthood (Lilley).


Froebel further held that games were particularly worthwhile for guiding children into moral behavior (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000). In order to continue in play, especially involving other children, youngsters needed to practice self-restraint, cooperation, and adherence to certain rules (Saracho, 1986), which contributed to developing them into self-disciplined, social, and law-abiding adults (Liebschner, 2001; Saracho). In addition, Froebel believed in the contribution of what developmental psychologists often refer to as “fantasy play” in helping children exercise their creative nature and model adult behavior, such as “playing house” (Moore, 1986; Saracho, 1986; Spodek, 1973, 1986). Although Froebel opined that play served to develop children in both the cognitive and sensory spheres, he asserted that its contribution to a child’s moral and social development made it foundational to any education program.


FROEBEL’S EMPHASIS ON MORAL FOUNDATIONS RATHER THAN ON TESTING


Froebel strongly stressed the distinctiveness of kindergarten from the rest of a child’s school years (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Morgan, 1999), but nevertheless viewed it as foundational to the remainder of a child’s school experience (Deboer, 2002; Morgan). As a result, Froebel thought of kindergarten as the place where teachers planted seeds to help the child garden grow, rather than the environment in which educators focused on testing the results (Wolfe, 2000).


Indeed, Froebel concentrated on the kind of child who graduated from kindergarten rather than a child’s performance on a particular test (Morgan, 1999; Wolfe, 2000). Given this emphasis on moral education, Froebel dedicated the first part of the day to prayer and Bible instruction (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Snider, 1900). Although prohibited in America’s public schools, this practice illustrates Froebel’s emphasis on establishing a moral foundation instead of achieving impressive test score results.


Froebel especially sought to instill in children certain important moral attributes, the first of which was love. To Froebel and other early childhood educators, moral education began by providing a loving atmosphere in which children learned (Beatty, 1995). Froebel subscribed to the central teaching of the Bible as “God is love” and posited that the teacher should model this love (Beatty; Ulich, 1957). As teachers both taught and demonstrated love, children would learn to love and support each other (Beatty), which would result in a unified classroom atmosphere.


Second, children learn self-discipline in the classroom (Rogers, 1983; Weston & Turiel, 1983). For example, if a game’s outcome goes awry or if children are unable to obtain a certain toy, they learn not to strike other children or exhibit temper tantrums (Rogers; Weston & Turiel). They also learn about deadlines, coloring between the lines, not speaking out of turn, the reasons for classroom and play roles, and so forth (Garvey, 1983; Vandewalker, 1971). Finally, play and games depend on law and order (Liebschner, 2001), which in turn promote self-discipline.


Third, children learn socialization (Moore, 1986) through direct instruction by teachers and by peer interaction. From teachers, students learn the importance of positive social reinforcement, emotional support, modeling and identification, and expectations (Moore). Peer interaction spawns socialization when children make friends, engage in conflict resolution, consider the feelings of others, and understand the concept of status (Moore). Froebel argued that even simple activities, like children throwing a ball to each other, promote unity because of each child’s dependence on the other (Liebschner, 2001).


THE PRIMACY OF THE FAMILY


Despite Froebel’s emphasis on the curriculum of kindergartens, he believed that they could thrive only if modeled after the strengths of the family and if the schools established a strong connection with the family (Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Snider, 1900; Spodek, 1973). In fact, Froebel maintained that the parent was the center of education (Lascarides & Hinitz; Snider). He opined that generally, children learned best in the home because it was usually a place where they enjoyed the most love (Lascarides & Hinitz). Teachers, therefore, needed to model parents in attempting to produce a loving environment in the schools (Beatty, 1995; Easterbrook & Goldberg, 1993; Marvin & Stewart, 1993). Froebel often stated, “Let us live for our children” (1887, p. 56). He asserted that the more both parents and teachers possessed this attitude, the more children would thrive (Beatty; Lilley, 1967).


Froebel also argued that a strong bond between the teacher and the parent was essential for children to be educated effectively (Beatty, 1995; Graves, 1912; Shapiro, 1983). Froebel believed in a practice common since the days of the Puritans: that teachers should visit the children’s homes before the school year and build a partnership (Beatty; Jeynes, 2003b; Shapiro). Froebel opined that parents and teachers should learn from one another. Teachers could offer parents educational advice, for example, on how best to promote development through play (Foundations and Agencies Network, 2000; Speltz, 1993), while parents could serve as guides regarding how best to support their children.


In all, Froebel constructed a kindergarten model in which the foundations of future development could be established. He directed his attention toward reducing stress by providing a loving environment, not adding to children’s stress by focusing on testing. He believed in encouraging the development of the child in a broad sense, particularly in the moral realm, not only within a narrow cognitive range defined by a high stakes test (Liebschner, 2001; Spodek, 1986; Ulich, 1957). Froebel’s emphasis also influenced other prominent early childhood educators, most notably Elizabeth Peabody and Maria Montessori (Beatty, 1995; Morgan, 1999). Each held a broad concept of the educated child, which included teaching character traits that, in their views, promoted love, loyalty, and world peace (Morgan; Spodek, 1973; Vandewalker, 1971).


RESEARCH INDICATES THAT FROEBEL IS RIGHTABOUT THE NATURE OF THE KINDERGARTEN


Child development research since Froebel suggests that his broad, supportive, and foundational approach to kindergarten benefits a young child better than one focused on high-stakes testing. First, since Froebel’s approach first declined in usage in the early 1960s, a considerable number of child developmental researchers have risen to defend Froebel’s broader approach. Recent studies suggest that the moral, behavioral, and self-regulatory qualities to which Froebel subscribed more accurately determine school readiness than cognitive or academic skills (Blair, 2002; Lewit & Baker, 1995; Pianta & Cox, 1999; Rimm-Kaufman et al., 2000). Spodek (1986), for example, claimed that people accept a “myth” if they believe merely that focusing on the academic aspects of development, without also focusing on the moral and social development of the children, helps ensure their “success in future schooling and in the real world” (p. 138). Spodek added, “people must know much more than how to read” (p. 138).


Piaget, Vygotsky, and countless other researchers have also defended the salience of play in the progression of children (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Piaget, 1950; Saracho, 1986; Spodek, 1973, 1986, 1991). Vygotsky specifically agreed with Froebel that, most importantly, play encourages the moral quality of self-restraint (Berk & Winsler). Piaget also claimed that play carried important moral functions, including teaching students to abide by rules, follow the “golden rule,” and cooperate with others (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987; Piaget, 1950).


Second, many have characterized administering standardized tests to kindergartens as a developmentally inappropriate practice (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Fraser & Gestwicki, 2002; Meacham, 1991; Meisels, 1999; Shepard, 1991; Shepard & Kagan, 1998; Shepard & Smith, 1988). Elkind (1981, 1987b) and others (Bredekamp & Copple; Meisels; Rescorla, Hyson, & Hirsch-Pasek, 1991) argued that focusing on standardized tests overlooks the broader development of children, and that 5-year-old children are not ready for such intense cognitive assessment. Elkind (1981, 1987a, 1987b) and Rescorla et al. further claimed that emphasizing standardized tests at such an early age hurries children through the developmental process and represents a “miseducation” because it may force cognitive development on young children rather than working with their natural development.


Gesell, Ilg, and Ames (1977) and Spodek (1973) defended the concept of a child’s right to be 5. Many child development theorists believe that kindergarten-aged children should explore, play, experience the joys of learning, and understand the basics of cognitive skills (Challie & Barber, 1990; Morgan-Worsham, 1990; Ohanian, 2002). A number of social scientists also noted that as the emphasis on standardized tests increases, other important components of normal childhood development remain marginalized (Garvey, 1983; Harmon, 1990; Meisels, 1999; Ohanian, 2002; Perrone, 1990; Thompson, 1990).


The assertion that teachers should avoid standardized tests in kindergarten does not mean that one should shun standardized tests at any level, nor does it mean that kindergarten should reject cognitive functions. Rather, this article argues for balance based on the children’s ages. Standardized tests hold a number of strengths, along with some weaknesses. Like any major method of assessment, standardized test results function best when used with other achievement measures, such as grades and teacher ratings (Cook & Campbell, 1979). Bredekamp and Copple (1997) presented a sophisticated chart outlining developmentally appropriate and inappropriate practices for young children. They stressed the inappropriateness of “standardized readiness tests” (p. 133) for kindergarten students, but averred that as long as instructors do not “teach to the test,” standardized tests prove useful for early elementary school children.


Regarding cognitive instruction, Froebel advocated its necessity (Shapiro, 1983). However, he argued that children need to learn much more from kindergarten than cognitive concepts. In addition, since Froebel’s time, a considerable amount of knowledge has amassed regarding children’s cognitive capacities and the propensity toward literacy and innumeracy based on their instruction and activities in the early years of development (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Case, 1992; Foundations and Agencies Network, 2000). Kohlberg and other moral and social development theorists showed that a challenging cognitive environment can often facilitate sound moral judgment and social interactions (DeVries & Kohlberg, 1987; Joy, 1983; Vygotsky, 1978). Therefore, given the strengths of the Froebel kindergarten model and how American schools have wandered from it, what is regarded as “developmental appropriate” today is somewhat different from what Froebel envisioned. Having stated this, neither Froebel nor his contemporary supporters would regard as developmentally appropriate America’s emphasis on standardized tests at the kindergarten level (Wolfe, 2000).


Third, educational research has repeatedly shown the association of standardized tests with high levels of stress in some children (Hyson, Hirsch-Pasek, & Rescorla, 1990; Rescorla et al., 1991). Specific to pre-first-grade students, studies by several researchers indicate that preschools with strong academic emphases may lead to higher test anxiety and lower creativity (Hyson et al.; Rescorla et al.). This is not consistent with the relatively stress-free kindergarten environment that Froebel imagined, which emphasized love, unity, and cooperation (Doherty, 1977; Hewes, 1990; Lascarides & Hinitz, 2000; Wolfe, 2000). Moreover, to whatever extent young children experience situations that promote test anxiety, their natural desire to learn and explore may be inhibited (Harmon, 1990; Kamii & Kamii, 1990; Ohanian, 2002). Schools often encourage this kind of atmosphere because they are often in competition with one another, each desiring bragging rights to some of the highest standardized test scores in the district (Harmon; Meisels, 1999; Ohanian; Perrone, 1990; Thompson, 1990).


Fourth, other research supports additional facets of the Froebel model, such as his emphasis on the importance of parental involvement (Huffman, Mehlinger, & Kerivan, 2000; Jeynes, 2003a, 2005; United States Department of Education, 2002) and a supportive family environment overall (Huffman et al.; Jeynes, 2002; United States Department of Education).


THE APPLICATION OF FROEBEL’S MODEL BY AMERICA’S ECONOMIC COMPETITORS IN ASIA


As Benjamin (1997) illustrated, students from East Asia routinely outscore their American counterparts on international comparison tests, and their school curriculum clearly holds higher educational standards than generally found in the United States. Thus, advocates of standardized testing at the pre-first-grade level assert that U.S. schools need to mirror East Asian systems of education, which generally stress rigorous curricula, high academic standards, and frequent standardized testing (Lemann, 1997). Such advocates, however, base their opinions on faulty assumptions of rigid and standardized East Asian kindergarten curricula and pedagogies (Lee, Graham, & Stevenson, 1998).


Lewis (1995), Stevenson and Stigler (1992), and other researchers noted that East Asian pre-first-grade education involves considerably less of an academic emphasis than typically found in American schools. This is largely because East Asian countries, particularly the Japanese, based their educational system on the western model (Benjamin, 1997). Japanese educators are convinced that learning character education, self-discipline, and social skills in the way that Froebel envisioned maximizes the utility of training young children, rather than moving so quickly into an academic orientation (Lewis; Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989).


THE FROEBEL MODEL IN JAPAN


In the case of Japan and other East Asian countries, a formal education system did not exist until extensive exposure to Western educational influence. Levine and White (1986) noted, “In 1853, the beginning of Japan’s modern contact with the west, Japan had no centralized or uniform national schooling” (pp. 96-97). And in other cases, such as China, the existing education system focused on training only the government ruling elite (Shimizu, 1992).


Japan was the first Asian nation to base its educational rubric on the Western model. In 1868, Emperor Meiji assumed the throne and argued that unless Japan adopted certain Western modern ways, its society could not thrive (Shimizu, 1992). In the 1870s, Meiji initiated a plethora of reforms, including its first kindergarten in 1876, based thoroughly on the Froebel model (Keenleyside & Thomas, 1937).


This kindergarten followed the Western model of the time, which focused on the development of morality and social skills (Keenleyside & Thomas, 1937; Khan, 1997). Today, Japanese kindergartens continue in this model, while postkindergarten and especially post-early elementary Japanese education is a highly conservative enterprise focused on basic educational skills, hard work, memorization, and test taking (Benjamin, 1997). Aware that their educational practices beyond kindergarten are rigorous, the Japanese believe that Froebel’s emphasis on moral education and social preparation ideally prepares children to thrive in the Japanese school system (Khan; Lewis, 1995; Tobin et al., 1989). Meanwhile, kindergartens in the United States now function less like Froebel’s kindergarten and more like a traditional first- or second-grade class, with greater emphasis on academics (Fleege, Charlesworth, & Burts, 1992; James & Tanner, 1993).


IN KOREA AND CHINA


Shortly after 19th-century changes in Japan, American and European missionaries also started Western-style schools in Korea (Durch, 2001, Reynolds, 2001) that, because of the influence of Elizabeth Peabody and others, included Froebel’s kindergarten model (Gangel & Benson, 1983; Lee, 1995; Morgan, 1999). Korea still practices the Froebel model today, with particular emphasis on parental involvement and moral education (Lee, 1998).


China did not pursue the Western model of education as aggressively as the Japanese. However, China’s educational foundation was also based on the western model. Robert Morrison (1782-1834) was the first Protestant missionary to China (Reynolds, 2001), but Chinese leaders did not embrace the Western model of education until its stunning defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 (Pepper, 1990). Pepper observed, “Thereafter China could no longer maintain even the pretense of its ancient superiority as the center of the East Asian world” (p. 10).


The Chinese elite knew that Japan had adopted Western technology and education, which gave them a social and political edge. As a result, China “suddenly abandoned” with “unprecedented imperial haste” its previous system of education, which trained only a small number of the Chinese elite, and embraced a Western model (Pepper, 1990, p. 10). As a result, Western missions schools blossomed all over the country. American, British, and Swiss missions schools doubled in number every 5-10 years (Reynolds, 2001) so that by 1920, 6,301 missions elementary schools operated in China (Cui, 2001; Reynolds). The accompanying kindergartens employed Froebel’s model.


FINAL THOUGHTS OF THE KINDERGARTEN IN ASIA


The Froebel kindergarten model remains the rubric of choice in most of Japan, Korea, and China. Parents do not expect their 5- and 6-year-old children to focus on standardized tests. In fact, they possess fewer expectations of cognitive development pedagogies at this level than Americans do (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Instead, Asian parents expect their children to learn little more than social skills in nursery school and kindergarten (Stevenson & Stigler).


AMERICA’S MOVE AWAY FROM THE FROEBEL MODEL


Several events simultaneously contributed to the recent move away from the Froebel model of kindergarten in the United States. Most occurred within in the last 40 years, encompassing three important time periods. The first time period spanned the years from 1963 to 1980. Two major series of events took place during this period that ultimately affected educators’ willingness to apply the Froebel model. The first series involved the 1962 and 1963 removal of prayer and Bible reading from classrooms. Before this time, Judeo-Christian morals formed the foundation of character education in American schools (Blanshard, 1963). However, after the landmark Supreme Court decisions, most forms of character or moral education were removed from the schools (Barton, 1990; Sikorski, 1993).


The process of removing moral teaching from the schools created a significant hole in the kindergarten curriculum (Blanshard, 1963; Kliebard, 1969; Michaelsen, 1970; Sikorski, 1993); prior to the 1962-1963 period, schools that used the Froebel model included Scripture readings, the singing of hymns, and teaching about moral qualities (Hamilton, 1969; Slight, 1961). Since 1962-1963, American educators have filled at least part of this void with academically oriented subject matter and the consequent assessments (Fleege et al., 1992; James & Tanner, 1993). Indeed, Perrone (1990) noted that beginning in the early 1960s, American schools became obsessed with giving young students standardized tests. Since that time, the use of standardized tests in American schools has grown by 20% per year.


From Froebel’s perspective, this orientation fails to produce a moral foundation in children and instead focuses on test performance, which will only undermine educational outcomes in the long run (Downs, 1978; Hamilton, 1969; Lilley, 1967; Slight, 1961; Ulich, 1957). Moreover, by replacing the moral component, children will find it more difficult to develop the qualities necessary for successful citizenship.


The second major event during this first period was the decline in achievement test scores from 1963 to 1980. During this time, SAT scores dropped for 17 consecutive years (Hayes, Wolfer, & Wolfe, 1996, United States Department of Education, 2001). Also during this period, virtually every major standardized test used in the United States, including the Stanford Achievement Test, the Iowa Test of Educational Development, and state test scores in demographically stable states indicated large drops in achievement test scores (Gross & Gross, 1985; United States Department of Education). In the most extensive investigation of test score trends, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) concluded that although demographic changes accounted for some of the decline, at least half of it was due to actual academic decline (G. Marco, personal communication, November 2, 1994; Wirtz, 1977).


The declining trend prompted politicians, researchers, and parents to call for various reforms in American education; however, social scientists concluded that schools could not fully bear the blame for the decline in educational outcomes. Even the ETS noted a number of social trends also responsible for the decline (Wirtz, 1977). They included a soaring divorce rate that coincided with the decline in SAT scores and a rise in the use of illegal drugs, which also started in the early 1960s and peaked around 1980 (United States Department of Education, 2001; United States Department of Justice, 1999). Other theorists asserted that it was more than coincidence that American public schools rejected Froebel’s kindergarten model in the precise year that scores began to decline (Blanshard, 1963; Kliebard, 1969; Michaelsen, 1970; Sikorski, 1993). Still others laid the largest part of the blame on different assorted school factors (Finn, 1991; Stout, 2000).


Regardless of whether American schools required reform, declining test scores caused Americans to focus on finding ways to raise them. This eventually affected pre-first-grade education, as waning test scores led some educators to insist on including more of the basics in kindergarten. The 1983 release of “A Nation at Risk” (National Committee on Excellence in Education; see Cooperman, 1985) also facilitated an emphasis on basic skills. Although many argued for this emphasis at the elementary and secondary school level, Froebel would oppose this focus at the kindergarten level as inexpedient (Downs, 1978; Lilley, 1967; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992).


The second key period spanned 1981-1992, during which the “back to the basics” movement gained popularity. During this time, many blamed the academic decline of 1963-1980 on the increased availability of course electives, the decrease in basic course requirements, and the emphasis on self-esteem (Finn, 1991; Stout, 2000). Some argued that by teaching more reading and mathematics in American schools, educational outcomes would improve (Finn; Stout). Conservative educators called for a return to an emphasis on the classical, or “basic,” curriculum first propounded by Plato. This curriculum includes classical literature, mathematics, civics, science, music, the arts, and gymnastic (physical education; Plato, 1985). At first, many teachers expressed reluctance to emphasize the basics. However, when reports emerged in the mid- to late 1980s indicating a decreased achievement gap between White and minority students, the back-to-the-basics movement, along with equal opportunity programs, gained popularity even among skeptics (Finn, 1991).


During this period, many Americans grew fascinated with the Japanese educational system based on reports about impressive results. During the 1963-1980 American academic slide, Japanese student scores soared to new heights (Duke, 1986). On international comparison tests, American students fared moderately well during the 1964 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) tests but performed poorly in the 1984 TIMSS tests (Lynn, 1988). Subsequent TIMSS results in 1995 and most recently in 1999 confirm that American students badly trail their Japanese and other Eastern Asian counterparts (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996, 2000). Educators in the 1980s quickly pointed out that Japanese students attended school more days and completed more homework than their American counterparts (Leestma & Walberg, 1992). Social scientists also concluded that part of the Japanese advantage stemmed from the fact that they were the most tested students on earth (Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Thus, the stage was set for an American emphasis on the basics and on testing.


The third period, 1993 to the present, helped finalize the shift away from Froebel’s model to current academic trends in kindergarten and preschool. During this period, Americans increasingly grew concerned about the persistent academic achievement test gap between suburban and innercity students. Educators discovered that the gap in part reflected the more rigorous curriculum present in suburban schools as compared with urban schools (Lee, Smerdon, & Alfeld-Liro, 2000). Acting on this knowledge, President Clinton called for voluntary nationwide standardized reading tests for fourth graders and math tests in eighth grade (Carnevale & Kimmel, 1997; Klein & Hamilton, 1999; Phelps, 2000).


Rather than using test results to compare students or schools, Clinton sought to increase accountability in the system and ensure that urban educators taught basic skills (Carnevale & Kimmel, 1997; Klein & Hamilton, 1999; Phelps, 2000) by using standardized test results as the primary measure of school effectiveness (Ohanian, 2002; Shepard & Smith, 1988). Consistently poor test results would indicate that instructors were not teaching essential concepts (Klein & Hamilton). George W. Bush reinforced Clinton’s ideals and advocated the use of standardized tests for the same reasons (Gorman, 2002). In fact, Bush codified it in the No Child Left Behind initiative, which warns schools that incessant failure to give adequate instruction will result in the loss of federal funding (United States Department of Education, 2001, 2002).


Despite a general trend away from the Froebel model, one should also note that there are some positive steps being taken in kindergarten education. The current Good Start Grow Smart initiative incorporates some of the orientations that Froebel advocated (United States Department of Education, 2002). Good Start Grow Smart strongly emphasizes the development of strong bonds between parents and teachers. The initiative elucidates on the importance of the parental role in education children (United States Department of Education). The initiative also calls for a substantial expansion of Head Start.


Overall, recent efforts to increase American reliance on the results of standardized tests may be well meaning, but it simply continues a more than 40-year trend away from the Froebel model and toward standardized testing. The policy issues involved largely come down to a matter of whether Americans want kindergartens to serve a foundational role in which a child blooms like a flower in a garden and begins to experience some of the social, creative, spiritual, and academic joys of life. The alternative possibility is that kindergarten continue along current trends and function increasingly as a first- or second-grade class.


A VISION OF THE FUTURE KINDERGARTEN


Given the aforementioned policies and the evolution of kindergarten in the United States, Froebel’s vision seems but a distant memory by comparison. Yet, to forestall the implications of these policy and evolutionary changes, I assert that contemporary practice should once again subscribe to Froebel’s model. In so doing, future kindergartens would include the following.


1. The “garden atmosphere” that Froebel originally advocated rather than an emphasis on standardized tests.


Kindergarten should be a place where children freely develop, like plants, into greater unity with those around them. Children should enjoy learning and establish the foundation necessary to develop into productive and loving citizens. Although kindergarten should integrate some degree of cognitive focus, academic orientation should not induce stress, lest children grow to despise learning. Given the stress produced in many young children by standardized testing and the assessments’ questionable validity, kindergartens should cease the administration of these tests (Ohanian, 2002; Shepard, 1991).


2. Educators should again teach moral education.


Most of the nation’s significant problems reflect the moral fabric of people graduating from America’s schools rather than their intelligence levels (Cintora, 1999; United States Department of Justice, 1999). For example, corporate scandals, terrorism, and the kidnapping of children deal more with citizens’ ethical qualities rather than cognitive abilities. “Teaching morality,” however, does not require teaching religious doctrine (Cintora; Ryan & Bohlin, 1998). Even our diverse society subscribes to a slate of core values, such as honesty, sincerity, responsibility, and courage (Haynes, 1999; Ryan & Bohlin). Thus, as Froebel asserted, schools have a duty to help mold not only intelligent individuals but also loving, caring, responsible, and civil human beings.


It is easy to assert that kindergartens should not include standardized tests. However, to advocate what should be removed from the kindergarten without specifying what should take its place would be inadvisable because it would leave a hole in the curriculum. Given that it was the removal of moral education, via taking prayer and Bible reading out of the schools, that set the stage for the surge in the use of standardized testing that began in the early to mid-1960s, it is only logical that moral education should be re-introduced as an essential part of the kindergarten curriculum. The moral education that Froebel and other educators practiced involved two aspects, a distinct moral component and the integration of moral education into the curriculum.


3. Kindergartens should be places where play and recess are valued.


Play and recess should be regarded as integral daily parts of the educational process that help children develop self-restraint, respect for rules and laws, cooperation with others, and a sense of the world around them (Garvey, 1983; Liebschner, 2001, Weston & Turiel, 1983). Teachers should not regard these activities as extraneous to the main purposes of kindergarten, but as primary functions (Garvey; Liebschner; Weston & Turiel).


4. Cognitive instruction should be developmentally appropriate in nature.


As DeVries and Kohlberg (1987) demonstrated, cognitive development speeds moral, social, and emotional growth. Consequently, school leaders should value academically oriented material not only in its own right but also for its influence on other kinds of development. Nevertheless, teachers should choose cognitive material that allows 5-year-olds to be 5 (Gesell et al., 1977). That is, teachers should practice pedagogies that help children discover how the world works and focus on material that children need to know regardless of the demands of standardized tests.


CONCLUSION


Separate from this vision, kindergarten remains anything but a human garden. By emphasizing standardized testing and rigorous academics, pre-first grade in the United States acts merely as an extension of subsequent elementary years, which Froebel never intended (Downs, 1978; Hamilton, 1969; Lilley, 1967; Slight, 1961; Ulich, 1957). Ironically, current practice likely undermines the goals it seeks to achieve (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997) and removes the moral and social foundation necessary for future personal and social success. Instead, the United States would be wise to return to the Froebel model, as most research supports its effectiveness over contemporary pedagogies and curricula. Until then, the American kindergarten functions as an anxiety-ridden, mechanistic misnomer—a blurred image of Froebel’s vision.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 10, 2006, p. 1937-1959
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12717, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 11:53:47 PM

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  • William Jeynes
    California State University at Long Beach
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM H. JEYNES is a professor of education at California State University in Long Beach. He has written numerous books and articles on educational history, the family and education, and various other topics. His most recent book, American Educational History: School, Society, and the Common Good (Sage Publications) will be published in January 2007. His articles have appeared in Elementary School Journal, Cambridge Journal of Education, Journal of Negro Education, and many other academic journals. Dr. Jeynes is particularly interested in providing a supportive environment for students to learn, and he is a well-known public speaker.
 
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