Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Kindergarten: Current Circumstances Affecting Curriculum

by Doris Pronin Fromberg - 1989

Kindergarten programs in public schools generally have an academic/ formal orientation or an intellectual/experiential orientation. This article highlights the fundamental differences between the two approaches by examining current curriculum, policy and staffing, and administrative practice regarding kindergarten. (Source: ERIC)

What should we teach young children? Should we strive to develop general intellectual skills or introduce them to formal academic subjects? Should the classroom be a formal-traditional environment or an open-experiential one? How do current certification and administrative practices affect the kindergarten education of young children? Fromberg answers these questions in her essay on the kindergarten curriculum.

It makes sense to consider kindergarten in any discussion of early childhood education. This is usually a year during which children who are five years of age begin their public school experience. Kindergarten is viewed by the lay public and others as a bridge between the nursery school as play/socialization and first grade as the serious business of learning to read by means of basal readers and workbooks. All states support kindergarten education, although only eight states mandate attendance.1

More than 3 million children, 90 percent of the children in the United States, attend kindergarten.2 Twenty-five percent of these children come from impoverished homes.3 Demographers predict that before the end of this century, children who grew up in poverty will constitute a significant portion of the population of the United States.4 At the same time, increasing cultural diversity and changing work patterns, with varied definitions of what constitutes a family, suggest that school, particularly kindergarten, may be one of the most stable, nurturant features in the lives of many children. This being the case, there is a need to develop kindergarten programs that are both culturally sensitive and intellectually stimulating.

Recent discussions of kindergarten have gone beyond current circumstances to consideration of matching the acts of teaching more closely to the conditions under which kindergarten children learn best. Increasingly, these discussions focus on developmentally appropriate content and methods for kindergarten that are distinctly different from curricular and instructional practices of the primary school.5 There is concern among early childhood educators and developmental specialists about “hothousing” or pressuring young children by a heavy reliance on workbooks and other paper-and-pencil activities, thus robbing children of time for experiential learning and, perhaps, creating behavior problems.6

These discussions highlight a fundamental disagreement among educators about early childhood programs in public schools. This difference of opinion is most clearly seen through analysis of current curriculum, policy and staffing, and administrative practice regarding kindergarten.


The questions we ask about programs propel how they are represented, where they go, and how time and space are used. Dewey suggested that it is worthwhile for teachers to help children move toward the funded knowledge of humanity in ways that are consistent with their present modes of development.7 Whitehead made the distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom, and recommended that wisdom—the use of knowledge—be the ultimate aim of education.8

Society expects kindergartens to prepare future adults who can adapt effectively to a complex and unpredictable world. Research on kindergarten and early childhood education should help kindergarten teachers and administrators in this work. Many kindergarten studies, however, lack reference to classroom organization and curriculum content. Some have looked at attitudes of parents and teachers. Most studies note that teachers in half-day programs feel rushed. Few studies focus on attitudes of children, although there is increasing study of social competence.9

What is emerging in the kindergarten field is a variety of paradigms for kindergarten programming, which grow out of significantly different views of what is developmentally appropriate, how learning takes place, and what teaching is worthwhile. In recent years, kindergartens have become more academic/formal and less intellectual/experiential. While both academic/formal and intellectual/experiential programs show improved test scores, school boards that are considering whether to extend the kindergarten day need to be aware that they are likely to extend whatever curriculum is already being offered. There are considerations that suggest that school districts with academic/formal programs should reexamine their curriculum, rather than extend the day.

The academic/formal view is largely behavioristic: The young learner is seen as a reactor to external stimuli and the subject of study is teaching. The intellectual/experiential view is largely constructivistic: The young learner is seen as an interpreter of interactions and the subject of study is how children learn. This perspective acknowledges that young children’s perception of the world differs from that of adults. The intellectual/experiential orientation also subsumes developmentally and socially oriented approaches and integrates play as one of six conditions of learning. (The other five are inductive experiences, cognitive dissonance, social interaction, physical experiences, and competence.10)

Constance Kamii points out that much that is behavioristic is subsumed under constructivist theory, but the process is not reversible.11 The academic/formal approach assumes that all children who are exposed to the same stimuli at the same time take away the same learning. There is a fallacy in this thinking. In actual fact, each child processes information differently and is likely to learn more with varied approaches.

Figure 1 compares the emphases of the academic/formal kindergarten (in which children are expected to adapt to the school’s teaching procedures) with the intellectual/experiential program (in which the school adapts to the child’s strategies for learning).


While most young children trust, and want to please, their teachers, the most creative children are likely not to conform to the demands of academic programs, by doing things differently from the majority way,12 or, alternatively, leaving situations through their capacity for fantasy.13 These children, who are merely engaging in age-appropriate behavior, are often labeled emotionally disturbed and referred to psychologists. They can work more easily in adaptive classrooms where small-group interactions predominate and where responsible behavior is expected. These considerations influence the cost of education as well as express ethical concerns.

Schools confront a moral dilemma because many children can perform the verbal tricks for which they are trained in rote-learning encounters. The workbook phenomenon in particular is in my opinion a form of sanctioned child abuse in early childhood education. Sixty-five-month-old children are expected to sit for hours and fill in workbooks that repeatedly test them. Even though children can perform in these ways, it is immoral to require that they do so, because the practice is so contrary to what we know about child development and learning. It is therefore essential to make explicit what one considers to be worthwhile learning, the nature of knowledge, and what kinds of human beings a society values.

Schools traditionally have been the single institution in society most directly charged with the task of extending the intellectual development of children. However, the most benevolent, warm-spirited, well-intentioned teacher cannot shield a child from failure unless that individual adapts teaching to the child’s ways of learning and developmental level. Such a practice leads to educational equity, empowerment, and responsibility.


How schools deal with equity issues is a reflection of their orientation toward academic/formal or intellectual/experiential curriculum and methods. In schools where the academic/formal perspective predominates, those children who are assessed as less able to succeed in school tend to come from lowincome and culturally varied groups. Those children are usually given rote tasks to do and are asked to respond to recall questions.14 In contrast, more successful children are more often engaged in creative tasks and are asked to respond to questions that call for analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.

Empowerment is another important issue that arises from the differences between the organization of the academic/formal and the intellectual/experiential classroom structures. Empowerment refers to children’s sense of their power to direct their own learning. Anthropologists Frederick Erickson and Gerald Mohatt described two teachers, one (I) who accommodated to children’s learning paces and styles and the other (II) who expected them to accommodate to his directives.15 Teacher II created sharp boundaries between work and play. Work was the area of teacher control. In contrast, Teacher I did not separate work and play as sharply, adapted to children’s rhythms as a way to gauge the time for new activities, and paced the same tasks more gradually. Nevertheless, children in both classrooms spent the same amount of time engaged in subject matter. In Teacher I’s classroom, children were seated at table groupings whereas in Teacher II’s they were seated individually in rows and spent more time in whole-group instruction. While both teachers circulated among the students, Teacher I addressed comments to small groups and individuals “privately,” part of the children’s cultural “etiquette” that avoided overt and direct social control. ‘Teacher II, even when working with small groups, would put people in the “spotlight” by addressing them “publicly” across the room. Teacher I accommodated to the children’s culture, creating a more culturally sensitive classroom. Teacher II intuitively limited children’s interactions with one another. That teacher focused on the children’s need to adapt to the group.

Part of what is at issue in consideration of both equity and empowerment is the question of how to help children assume responsibility for their own actions, including their learning and various forms of self-regulation. Based on understandings of social organization within schools, anthropologist Sylvia Hart has suggested that schools might group children according to substantive interest or motivation rather than only the ability to perform on linear tests.16

Intellectually oriented teachers regularly provide children with choices from among learning activities that use social interaction as a strength. Thus, a child who may be viewed as disruptive in the academic setting can be viewed as capable in the intellectual kindergarten. The power to choose among activities and between social interaction and privacy stimulates self-direction and responsible attention to tasks.

Children in an intellectual setting have more of a sense of personal power and take more responsibility for their own behavior when they have opportunities to engage in activity that is appropriate. With guidance, they are expected to pace themselves, select from among varied activities, and set problems for themselves and others. They have motives for applying the three Rs to meaningful content. In the pursuit of such choices, they acquire additional autonomy and wisdom. This approach provides a long-term commitment to scholarship. If, on the other hand, the appeal is solely to the authority of the school for the teacher and the teacher for the child, it becomes especially difficult to teach children to say no to damaging influences in their lives, such as child abusers, and to peer-group pressures for drugs and group vandalism.


Although state policies affecting kindergarten are diverse, there is a remarkable uniformity of curricular trends across the nation. In numerous settings, kindergarten programs reflect both the effects of international economic competition and the changing family structure in American society. With pressure on schools to accomplish more earlier and to provide child-care services in addition to education, kindergartens have been forced to adapt. The extension of public kindergarten education into new parts of the country during the past fifteen years is one manifestation of those influences. In addition, traditional half-day programs have been lengthened so that twenty-two states now support local varieties of extended-day and all-day kindergarten programs, compared with one state in 1974.17

Local school districts, sometimes within broad state guidelines, control kindergarten curricula and, despite teacher certification policies, also decide who will teach kindergarten.


Public policy concerning early childhood teacher certification is ragged and inadequate, despite findings by researchers that teacher training in early childhood education and child development were significant factors in children’s school achievement.18 Specially designated early childhood teacher preparation requirements may be as little as two courses or as much as a master’s degree plus teaching experience.19 Thirty-six states have some provision for certifying or endorsing (an alternative strand within the elementary school license) kindergarten teachers.

Table 1 charts teacher certification for early childhood education in the United States. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia provide for certification; twenty-one endorse kindergarten specialties within the general elementary certificate; and fourteen have no unique regulation of kindergarten teachers. Thus, it is common practice for upper-elementary teachers or others without preparation in early childhood to work in kindergarten. The situation is critical because the demand on educational services for young children is expanding. Public policies are needed that more vigorously support certification of whose who will teach young children Administrative policies, too, should become more supportive of an early childhood perspective that leans more toward the intellectual/experiential and away from the academic/formal.


Current administrative practice toward kindergarten places stress on academic readiness with a new set of “three Rs”—readiness testing, “redshirting,” and retention.


Prescreening tests are currently used to determine children’s readiness for academic work. Children who do not pass the tests may be excluded or placed in a junior kindergarten. In contrast to these uses by elementary school administrators and teachers, early childhood educators would like readiness tests to be used diagnostically to consider children’s social competence; emotional, physical, and cognitive learning; or cultural development.

The debate over readiness testing has become so heated as to lead to a “call for a moratorium on the use of achievement tests in grades K-2.“20




Consistent with readiness testing, “redshirting”21—the process of keeping children out of school for an additional—yea -is a growing trend. Parents of children—especially boys-who are close to the cutoff date for admission to kindergarten, responding to documentation about younger boys’ having more trouble in school, have redshirted their own children. Redshirting reflects parental fears of the children’s repeating a year at school, as well as their desire for their children to do well and achieve high scores in an academic setting. As with the varied expectations for readiness tests, redshirting reflects the differences in expectations among primary/elementary educators and early childhood educators.

October seems to be a common cut-off date for kindergarten admission, although variations between June 1 and December 1 exist. Some school districts have followed private school practice and raised the age of admission. Nevertheless, admission decisions need to account for the fact that there will still be a one-year difference between the oldest and the youngest children in a class.


At the completion of the kindergarten year, children who do not master the skills expected in an academic first grade might repeat kindergarten or be placed in a junior first grade. There has been a considerable body of research about the effects of such retention on children. Asa Hilliard III makes the point that this practice places “inordinate stress” on low-income and culturally varied children, who feel culpable even though the school setting is to blame22 Indeed, he and others note that grade retention lowers aspiration levels and performance on tests, and adversely affects social behavior,23 thus undermining the child’s self-esteem—an important factor in academic performance.24 Findings that socially promoted younger children,25 or children who were low achievers, did better academically and socially than retained children26 suggest that retention for academic reasons alone may be counterproductive. Here again is an issue on which the opinions of early childhood educators and elementary educators are at odds.

The three Rs of readiness testing, redshirting, and retention reflect a trend toward practices that are not based on either theory or research about how children learn. Even with training, many early childhood teachers feel overwhelmed by institutional pressures that include administrators who do not have an understanding of developmentally appropriate programs. Teachers with specialized preparation in early education report that although they do not believe that workbooks or lockstep methods are worthwhile, they feel compelled by administrative or parental pressure to use practices that are in conflict with their philosophies and what they know about child development, learning, and teaching. J. Amos Hatch and Evelyn B. Freeman have documented this situation in Ohio,27 but this “academic bootcamp”28 is present across the country.29

With the power to make curriculum decisions comes the power to take responsibility. In-service teachers need to extend their own opportunities for professionalism, a process that is beginning politically and one that needs to be extended substantively as well. Collaborative and inductive learning conditions must be made available to practicing teachers. They need collegial planning time and school support for the self-reflective study of teaching, using personal teaching data and coaching by colleagues.30

Although I have discussed the polarities of the academic and intellectual kindergartens, and although the academic forms have been proliferating, it is inaccurate to assume that truly intellectual education has been tried and been passed over. It is, however, accurate to say that the academic model for young children has been used widely and has been found wanting. The problem of school failure for many inner-city, low-income, and culturally diverse groups continues. These children feel discouraged and learn to perceive the school as alien.

While children are resilient and often can conform to academic demands, educators and policymakers need to consider that the intellectual kindergarten can subsume many of the expected accomplishments of the academic scope and exceed that scope.


It is time for reform in primary education to reflect the best of early childhood practices. The school process in first grade has been essentially the same during the past two decades.31 Much existing primary practice is culturally insufficient and sterile.

Articulation between exemplary kindergarten practices and first grades can help to maintain and extend educational opportunities for children who come from diverse socioeconomic and cultural heritages. This would include extending the use of culturally rich learning centers in which children can practice independence, responsibility, and self-pacing. It would also include organizing small-group and individual instruction. Schools need to help children to relate school activities and projects to their personal rates of learning, motives, and extended community experiences. Developmentally appropriate content needs to be the center of curriculum with skills applied to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

Therefore, there is a need for site-specific curriculum development. This means that school systems would move away from district-wide adoptions of texts to unique building-level decision making and the collegial involvement of kindergarten and primary teachers in planning curriculum. In turn, principals need to have an understanding of developmentally appropriate curriculum for young children. They also need skills in working collaboratively with autonomous professional teachers. State education departments should legislate relevant professional early childhood teacher certification throughout the United States. Teacher-association campaigns for teacher empowerment in curriculum development also should support early childhood teacher certification.

There is a need for collaborative interdisciplinary research with teachers in classrooms. Universities, professional organizations, and public policy agents ought to support the documentation and sharing of research findings that have implications for teachers’ use. Support for longitudinal studies is particularly relevant. The fundamental disagreement among educators about early childhood programs in public schools will probably not be resolved until such research is conducted, implications are drawn for practice, and those implications are translated into policy regarding teacher certification and licensure. Until then, the “miseducation” of young children is likely to continue.32 If we do not address this situation now, when will we? If we do not do it, who will?

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 3, 1989, p. 392-403
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 474, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 3:12:03 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue