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Home » Common Core » Are the Common Core math standards “developmentally appropriate” for Kindergarteners? It depends, as always, on who’s teaching.

Are the Common Core math standards “developmentally appropriate” for Kindergarteners? It depends, as always, on who’s teaching.

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Opponents say that the Common Core standards, especially the math standards, are not developmentally appropriate for Kindergarteners.

But many New Hampshire Kindergarten and early grade teachers are using the math standards successfully.  When I ask, they say that Kindergarteners can definitely achieve the goals set out in the standards, under the right conditions.  One condition is that the child is prepared – meaning that she’s attended high quality pre-K or her parents have provided a rich environment full of words and numbers.

The second requirement is that she must have access to full day kindergarten.  We know that frequently is not the case, particularly for low income students.  But it appears that, at least partly, it’s about preparation, not something inherent in a five year-old’s stage of development.  So a state’s early childhood development policies are the issue, not really the Common Core or any other standard.

“But,” many say, “5 year olds need to play and discover together.  They need social and emotional development, not academic instruction.”  This is not really a Common Core issue either.  It is a long-running debate that predates the Common Core and will probably go on for a long time.  Some schools, including many Montessori and Waldorf schools, are better at combining play and learning than others.  And some teachers are.  So there’s real pedagogy involved.  But it doesn’t appear to be an issue of what a 5 year-old is developmentally prepared to do.

Here’s a typical post from a Common Core opponent – blogger Anthony Cody, in this case – saying that the goals the standards set for Kindergarteners are inappropriate”

Error #2: The Common Core Standards violate what we know about how children develop and grow.

One of the problems with the blinkered development process described above is that no experts on early childhood were included in the drafting or internal review of the Common Core.

In response to the Common Core, more than 500 experts signed the Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative. This statement now seems prophetic in light of what is happening in classrooms. The key concerns they raised were:

1.            Such standards will lead to long hours of instruction in literacy and math.
2.            They will lead to inappropriate standardized testing
3.            Didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other important areas of learning.
4.            There is little evidence that such standards for young children lead to later success.

Many states are now developing standards and tests for children in kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade, to “prepare” them for the Common Core. Early childhood education experts agree that this is developmentally inappropriate. Young children do not need to be subjected to standardized tests. Just recently, the parents of a k-2 school refused to allow their children to be tested. They were right to do so.

Mr. Cody makes a common mistake here, confusing the Common Core with the way certain states implement it.  In New York, a state with among the worst education policies in the country, all the bad things he enumerates do happen – but they would happen with or without the Common Core.

In fact, if you are willing to risk depression, watch the video posted here showing a NY teacher drilling disengaged Kindergartners in counting.  And this is presented as a model by, the official  New York State Education Department website set up to support the state’s education reform agenda.

Notice that the blogger makes the same mistake Mr. Cody does – he attributes this offensive teaching strategy to the Common Core when it’s actually the result of New York’s dishearteningly misguided public education policy.

People concerned about the importance of play and discovery for young children refer to studies like these to make the case that the Common Core standards are inappropriate, but clearly what’s appropriate is a matter of how it’s taught.

I asked a young NY mom the other day whether her four year-old’s private school – known for its commitment to play, discovery and development of “the whole child” – would consider this sample Kindergarten math standard developmentally appropriate:

“Count to 100 by ones and by tens.”

She didn’t know for sure but emailed me a couple of days later, saying,

“Jason[a pseudonym] and his classmates decided yesterday to measure the length of their classroom. They are using small colored cubes like the ones we have at home, and they laid out several hundred of them in a line across the floor.  Their job today is counting them.

So take a guess what sign showed up on the wall this morning to facilitate the counting – a chart with numbers from 1 to 50 and then numbers by 10s to 100 after that…

So there you have it – teaching to the Common Core math standard by mind-numbing drill or by mind-expanding discovery.  And within a few feet of each other!

Mr. Cody and Mr. Cerrone are not alone in making this obvious error.  Most Common Core opponents do it: show bad teaching or kids under stress from NY or somewhere else and attribute it to the new standards.

Why would they do this?  Because they are using the issue as a political tool to scare parents about the Common Core rather than actually engaging in the early childhood development debate about what’s best for kids.

A commentator concerned about the issue instead of using it to make a political point would approach the question entirely differently.  Here is Daniel Willingham talking about whether a particular approach to teaching is appropriate for first graders.

…you can’t always wait until children are “ready.” Think about mathematics. Children are born understanding numerosity, but they understand it on a logarithmic scale–the difference between five and ten is larger than the difference between 70 and 75. To understand elementary mathematics they must learn to think of numbers of a linear scale. In this case, teachers have toundo Nature. And if you wait until the child is “developmentally ready” to understand numbers this way, you’ll never teach them mathematics. It will never happen.

In sum, I don’t think developmental psychology is a good guide to what children should learn; it provides some help in thinking about how children learn. The best guide to “what” is what children know now, and where you want their learning to head.

Dr. Willingham is not in some political fox hole lobbing out whatever ammunition he has to defeat the new standards that must be bad because Bill Gates supports them.  He’s just trying to figure out the best way to help kids learn.  Mr. Cody and Mr. Cerrone should come out of their fox holes and learn from Dr. Willingham.


  1. Jack Blodgett says:


    In Tyack and Cuban’s “Tinkering Toward Utopia” about the snail’s pace of education reform over the past century, there’s some useful discussion of the “implementation issue.” Why is it that time and time again we hear the same lament: “what a shame they just didn’t implement our great idea properly, or implement it at all” – – sending us back two steps to reinvent an approach that would hopefully make up for lost time?

    Years ago in another era of renewed determination to turn things around for underperforming students, a state education department official confided to me that he had secretly given up on his job of providing technical assistance to schools that were struggling with the new standards for instruction in writing: “I go to the teachers and ask them what they’re doing to teach writing, and they walk me over to a filing cabinet and begin to show me individual checklists and neatly tabbed student files, each containing a sample of “description,” “exposition,” “argumentation,” and “narration. I can’t really blame them for draining the life out of thoughtful and creative expression. I blame the job I’m in – – as keeper of the keys…”

    Why would the opponents of the Common Core, especially as it touches the lives of children at perhaps the most vulnerable, impressionable time in their development, be as concerned as they appear to be? Is it just political? – – or would they rather, in ironic actuality, be “engaging in the early childhood development debate about what’s best for kids” than be concerned with the quality of any given external standard, or the extent to which its intent is being perverted – – as though the standard were the “thing” itself? We know from general semantics that the “word is not the thing.” When it comes to education reform, however, we appear to forget it. The state education department official I mentioned above eventually left his job. He did not do this in renunciation of standards, in a rejection of all the synonyms one can find listed for the word “standard.” Of course not. He left to launch one the nation’s first social/professional networks for teachers to write to each other about how they teach writing.

  2. […] Take a look at the Common Core discussion. I personally think Common Core is inappropriate for ages K-3 based on personal observations and studies done on how children learn. ( i.e I make that argument and the rebutal I get is “lots of teachers are using it and that’s not a Common Core problem that’s a “teaching problem”.” (😉 […]

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