Backstory: Einsteins at five

In the 'new' kindergarten, kids no longer just tie shoes, but read, write, and calculate.

Barely 5 years old, Edgar Padilla can accurately draw bar graphs and create "A-B" patterns of geometric shapes. He discusses the finer points of underwater photography. He occasionally infuses his sentences with the word "meta-cognition," to the confoundment of some adults (including this one).

Precocious and tousle-haired, young Edgar may be unusually smart for his age, but his prowess with numbers and language is hardly exceptional: He, in many ways, reflects the rigors and reality of the "new" kindergarten.

Once upon a time, being 5 was all about learning your colors and how to tie your shoes without making a square knot. Today it's more apt to be about deconstructing sentences, performing not-so-simple addition and subtraction, and even learning the rudiments of a foreign language.

Across the country, the accountability movement in education and near obsession with academic excellence is filtering down to the level of the jungle gym and nap-time rug. School districts are pushing students to new levels as a growing body of research indicates the importance of early learning and the demands of a competitive world close in on the American classroom.

To many, the emphasis on academic performance at very young ages is a positive trend that will boost the nation's educational system. But others worry it ratchets up the academic arms race and places too much responsibility on the backs of America's youngest students, at a time when many still put their coats on inside out.

"There's a lot of research indicating that the early years are learning years," says Alan Simpson, director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Alexandria, Va. "But too much too soon can be a real problem for children and schools."

The trend has been around for several years, but has accelerated as testing has forced many schools to start preparing students at the earliest levels. At the same time, many children now attend advanced preschools, which makes them ready for more than just coloring within the lines by the time they hit kindergarten. Fully 60 percent of children also go to kindergarten full time, giving them more time to master basic math and reading - something once reserved for first- and second-graders.

"What we're seeing is really the Baby Mozart approach," says Pat Nadeau, an expert at the Erikson Institute for early childhood development in Chicago. "You just keep stuffing information in and assume the child is going to wind up better, smarter, and able to leap tall buildings in one leap."

As the kids in Dawn Lewis's kindergarten class show, they are capable of a lot more than molding Play-Doh. Here in Thomasville, a working-class town in North Carolina's furniture belt, 0students are engaged in a "Bright IDEAS" program developed by a professor at Duke University in Durham.

Below wall posters of bar graphs and pie charts, one kindergartner writes a descriptive sentence about a platypus. Mary-Kate Miller is more curious about Hadiya Monk's braids. But when called upon, she stands up and rattles off a complete sentence about how she's wearing an orange and blue shirt, then mugs for the class.

As witnessed here, the yearning for learning is, as Edgar might say, pervasive. When a photographer walks into the room, the kids swarm, thinking momentarily it might be Norbert Wu, the famous lensman who took the underwater fish pictures they've been talking about - also in required complete sentences. In the spirit of Socrates, one class last year had a debate about the methods of Michelangelo. Teachers say it came off magnificently.

"It used to be all cut, color, and paste and no reading," says Ms. Lewis. "Now these kids are busting through the ceiling."

The concepts sometimes fly over even parents' heads. "One mom came to me and said, 'My child is telling me I need to manage my impulsivity - what are you doing to my child?' " says Dawn Miller, another Thomasville kindergarten teacher.

Yet many parents endorse the new regimen, noting how it expands their childrens' learning and confidence. One mother, picking up her son, says she saw huge gains in her child within just a few weeks. "I think this class gives them an advantage other kids may not get," she says.

The Duke University pilot program is as much about teaching the capability of learning as it is the nuts-and-bolts of subjects. The idea is to get kids to follow their curiosity toward real knowledge. "One of our problems nationally ... is that we don't have high expectations for our children," says Margaret Gayle of the American Association of Gifted Children in Durham, N.C. "This curriculum is immersing them in essential questions, high concepts, outstanding vocabulary, and also intelligent behavior and habits of mind."

But it's not an easy shift for students or teachers. After four years at Thomasville, where about 70 percent of students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, the program is still not ready to be rolled out for all kindergarten classes in the district. Similarly, teachers in San Diego this spring convinced the school board to scale back some of the district's rigorous kindergarten initiatives.

What's more, while it's clear that young children have a large capacity for learning - research shows they learn faster at 5 than any other age - it's less certain whether all this early erudition has an impact in later years. The French have universal preschool starting at age 3, but Swedish children don't begin academic work until 6, sometimes 7. Studies show that both populations end up doing just as well.

The problem is compounded by children trying to figure out what adults want, at a time when they may not comprehend the mysteries of iridescent fish. Researchers say that academic skills sometimes blossom overnight between the ages of 5 and 7, but expecting too much from kids too early can lead to failure and frustration. "The natural intuition that earlier is better - the earlier the start, the better you finish - is the wrong intuition," says David Elkind, a child-development expert at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "You can understand the pressures [on schools, parents and educators], but it's still wrong."

Still, for the kids in Lewis's sun-filled class, the program seems an unqualified success. Roberto Lopez creates his own patterns from cutout pictures of bats and pumpkins. Other children ignore the assignment to play with a camera or wander off to sleep in a corner.

"Some of these kids come from tough situations, but we now know they can grow up to be doctors, lawyers, and professional photographers - and it's up to us to help them believe they can," says Lewis.

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