Tuesday, March 29, 2005


I can remember visiting my suburban Omaha grade school with my best friend, Cindy Paul, back in the 1960s, the summer before we started kindergarten. While on the playground, we noticed that our future classroom door was open.

We walked in and picked up the little readers on the low table. Cindy immediately read the word “elephant.” I was impressed! I was reading, too, but just barely (what a slacker, but at least I was potty-trained).

We both knew the lay of the land: kindergarten was for learning to read, and if you already could when you got started, so much the better.

Now, let’s time-travel forward to today’s kindergartners. Kindergarten roundups have been going on in public schools all across the state this month, and what are parents hearing is the goal of kindergarten, which mostly lasts all day these days?

Not “reading.” Instead, the goal is “reading readiness” and “developmentally-appropriate practice.” Which means: glorified day care.

What used to be the standard a generation ago – independent reading by age 5 or 6 – has now been pushed back to the end of first grade. So one, maybe two full years of vocabulary development and comprehension practice are lost. And boy, does it show in test scores on down the road.

But not in private schools. Play and fun are still built in, but the curriculum is truly academic. You can see that just by touring a few public and private kindergartens, and looking at the caliber of the work that’s up on the walls.

I have just one thing to say about the Whole Language reading philosophy that’s in place in every public kindergarten I’ve ever visited or read about:

Garbage in, garbage out.

To the extent that pure phonics are taught in the early grades, you’ll find quality in the reading, writing and thinking that goes on there.

A survey of kindergarten curriculum in a few Omaha-area private schools shows some great things going on in private kindergartens:

-- Saxon Phonics at Trinity Christian School.
-- Spalding Phonics at the Phoenix Academy.
-- Phonics, French class (highest-powered for vocabulary building) and grammar instruction at Brownell-Talbot.
-- A teacher-to-child ratio of 1:7.79 at Montessori.

I realize that far more mothers are working, and therefore far more of the job of preparing a lot of kids for kindergarten falls to the preschools. They can’t, by definition, do as good a job as a full-time mother can. (Of course I’m biased because I “are” one, but then again, I don’t know anyone who’d argue with that.)

I also realize that, because of the breakdown of the family, there are a lot more social problems faced by little kids today than when I rode my dinosaur to school.

But that just means our kindergartens must try to mimic what a loving, creative, literate home does with a small child – exactly what the public kindergartens are NOT doing.

It’s perplexing, since it’s not for lack of funding: traditional kindergarten activities are actually very cheap. And there’s also a lot more money, proportionately, flowing into the public schools than a generation or two ago. Plus, with all the accreditations and certifications and credentialing going on, one would hope there’s a lot more known about what to do, and NOT to do, to help kids learn.

The public schools are technically spending a lot more per child than tuition costs at most private schools, especially the Catholic ones which are subsidized by their corresponding churches. But do the public schools measure up in the things that build literacy, numeracy and character?

Consider these kindergarten content standards from one public and one private kindergarten in the Omaha area. Which are more likely to produce competent readers by the end of the kindergarten year? Which give parents a clear idea of how it is to be done? Which promote the skills of literacy the best?

Here are the standards from Beals Elementary School in the Omaha Public Schools from
www.ops.org (spending per pupil per year based on Average Daily Attendance as reported to the State Education Department, $8,420.69):


K01 Demonstrate phonological awareness.
* Listen to nursery rhymes and identify rhyming words.
* Identify beginning, middle, and ending sounds in one-syllable words.
* Blend words orally.
K02 Memorize and recite familiar nursery rhymes and poems.
K03 Apply knowledge of the organization of print to reading.
* Point to words
* Locate top/bottom
* Track left/right
* Turn pages sequentially
K04 Name upper and lower case letters of the alphabet.
K05 Produce single consonant and short vowel sounds.
K06 Recognize color, number, and high frequency words.
K07 Listen to fiction and nonfiction to demonstrate understanding.
* Predict
* Recall
* Retell*
Distinguish between fantasy and reality
K08 Self-select and independently "read" fiction and nonfiction materials.
K09 Write the letters of the alphabet.
K10 Use writing to convey messages.
* Form letters
* Copy words
* Write from dictation
K11 Use oral language to communicate.
* Answer questions
* Ask questions
* Share information and opinions
K12 Gain information and complete tasks through listening.
K13 Recognize that people come from different cultural backgrounds

Do you think those standards are dumbed down from a generation or two ago? I mean, POINT to words? I sure do.

Now, compare those to these kindergarten curriculum standards from St. Patrick’s School, a Catholic grade school in Elkhorn,
www.stpatselkhorn.org (tuition: $3,219 for a non-parishioner this year):

Students will retell sequence of events in a story.
Students will predict and revise predictions when reading.
Students will relate literature to personal experiences.
Students will recognize and identify main ideas, details, characters, and problem-solution in stories.
Students will identify similarities and differences in a story.
Students will order simple sequence patterns from stories read orally.
Students will differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Students will respond to various types of literature including fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
Students will categorize the stories read aloud as real or pretend.
Students will answer different types and levels of questions.
Students will recognize that words are symbols for objects and ideas.
Students will recognize letters.
Students will identify letters and differentiate lower and upper-case letters.
Students will match letters and sounds.
Students will divide words into syllables.
Students will identify beginning, middle, and final sounds of words.
Students will identify rhyming words.
Students will use letter-sound knowledge to read decodable words.
Students will understand directionality (top to bottom, front to back, and left to right).
Students will match spoken and written words.
Students will understand text structure (title, author, illustrator, etc.).
Students will respond to literature through discussion, movement, and art.
Students will select appropriate reading materials.
Students will print with lower and upper case letters where appropriate.
Students will write left to right and top to bottom.
Students will gain control of pencil grip, paper position, beginning strokes, posture, and letter formation.
Students will use appropriate letter size and spacing.
Students will dictate sentences/stories to an adult.
Students will write their first and last names.
Students will write rhyming words.
Students will use letters to build words.
Students will identify and use punctuation marks.
Students will use letter-sound knowledge to write words.
Students will recognize sight words, color words, and days of the week.
Students will recognize rhyming words.
Students will recite ABC’s and numbers.
Students will participate in show and tell.
Students will dialogue with neighbor(s) and paraphrase the response to the class.
Students will participate in oral activities in church in front of the congregation.
Students will use proper grammar and enunciate clearly in everyday speech.
Students will accurately recite prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Students will use proper questioning skills.
Students will listen to a story and respond orally.
Students will demonstrate listening position.
Students will respond to directions.
Students will accurately follow procedures and directions given orally.
Students will exhibit proper listening skills at church, when being spoken to in school, at assemblies, and during special presentations.
Students will interact with computers.
Students will identify and use the mouse to navigate on a computer.
Students will type their names using the keyboard.
Students will properly use a tape player.

Is there any question? The private school kindergarten expectations are tons better. And it’s being offered at a tuition rate that is less than half what the average spending per pupil is in the public schools.

The private schools don’t cost taxpayers a dime beyond basic fire and safety protection. But in value, what private kindergartens do for kids is . . . priceless. And what they do for adults is, too, because in the sheer comparison, we can see what our public educational institutions need to improve.

Fortunately, there are 47 accredited and 176 approved private schools in Nebraska where you can get this caliber of a great start for your child.

Here’s where you can find them to begin the “smart shopping” process comparing what they do to what your local public school does:



I’d say, as more and more people find out about the stark contrast in expectations and methods between public and private schools in Nebraska, and demand for private education grows, the list of private alternatives is going to grow and grow and grow.

And in the long run, that’ll help everybody – because nothing works like competition to improve quality.

I should know: I went to kindergarten with Cindy Paul, who could read the word “elephant” before Day One. It inspired me. I put the pedal to the metal. Today, I read and write for a living. And I can read even bigger words . . . like “cost-effectiveness,” as it relates to private education.


WEDNESDAY: Homeschooling for kindergarten

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