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Everything I thought I knew about kindergarten, I was wrong

Courtesy of Nicola Kelley Hyser
A kindergartner's drawing given to Nicola Kelley Hyser on her last day at school.

In 1986, Robert Fulghum published his New York Times best-seller “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Its wisdom resonated with the masses, and it remained on best-selling lists for nearly two years. My daughters attended half-day kindergarten in the ’80s, and they learned – as I had decades before them – about sharing, playing fair, cleaning up after themselves and painting favorite scenes to proudly show Mom and Dad.

Most kindergarten programs were, until recently, more social and less academic from what I witnessed last school year as a literacy tutor for full-day kindergarteners in St. Paul. One person’s reaction to my position says a lot: “Literacy tutoring? How much literacy tutoring can you do in kindergarten?!”

However, in the past several decades, research has stressed the importance of universal early childhood education – preschool and kindergarten – for long-term academic achievement and greater economic success after high school. In 2013, President Barack Obama proposed growing future workforces with universal preschool. In 2014, however, only 15 states plus the District of Columbia mandated kindergarten attendance. Some programs are half-day; some are full-day. In Minnesota, full-day kindergarten funding has only been available to school districts and charter schools since the 2014-2015 school year.

I signed up with Experience Corps – AARP for the 2015-16 public school year, and I knew the focus was on K- to third-graders in schools of greatest need: urban schools with a high percentage of minority students who live in poverty and whose test scores – particularly math and reading scores – may be 25 points lower than integrated schools.

This is what’s known as the “achievement gap.” Educational studies have documented that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate by age 19 than children who read proficiently by that time. When poverty is an issue, a student is 13 times less likely to graduate on time compared with skillful, wealthier peers. The focus on K- to third-graders is crucial because students are learning to read in those first grades, and afterwards they are using their reading skills to learn and advance in other subjects.

My immediate goal was to help these younger students advance in their basic reading skills so they would want to continue to succeed … the ultimate goals being high school graduation, getting a decent-paying job and going on to higher education if they aspire to that. According to a 2012 “Frontline” report, the average high school dropout may earn an annual income of $20,241, a full $10,386 less than the typical high school graduate and $36,424 less than someone with a bachelor’s degree. Unemployment rates are around 12 percent for high school dropouts, and incarceration rates are 63 times higher for them than for college graduates. 

What I’ve learned in 21st-century kindergarten

I requested to be placed at Obama Elementary and with a first-year teacher and her class of 20 kindergarteners. By the end of a kindergarten year, according to St. Paul Public School (SPPS) District standards, students are expected to know and write their ABCs, to know 20 letter sounds and 44 letters/phonemes (which includes blends, such as “sh” and “th”) and at least 10 words from the list of 100 common sight words. On the range of kindergarten-level books, with A-level being the lowest, they work toward reading D-level books. Sight words – such as “go,” “the,” “and” – are common words that reappear frequently on pages of simpler to more complex text accompanied by colorful, detailed illustrations, that range from straightforward to less obvious and require more critical-thinking skills.

Comprehending the goals and the reading material wasn’t difficult. Being a kindergarten tutor should be a snap, right? No. Not so easy. Ninety-five percent of Obama’s approximately 460 students come from low-income families. Over 50 years of research confirms that the children of lower-income parents typically enter school with poorer language skills than their more affluent peers. Educational studies confirm that students’ oral skills are directly linked to their reading skills. Kindergarteners are expected to start school with proficient oral language ability and the background/context knowledge associated with that.

By age 3, children growing up in poor neighborhoods or from lower-income families may hear up to 30 million fewer words than more privileged children. Consequently, 5-year-old children of lower socio-economic status score two years behind on standardized language development tests by the time they enter school.

Early on, my teacher told me one of the most important things I could do to improve our students’ literacy skills was to engage them in conversation, so we often discussed – among other things – why they were upset with a certain friend, what they did with their families over the weekend, what they hoped they were having for lunch and, of course, the books we read together, and connecting those stories with their experiences. Eating lunch with them (my choice) gave me more opportunity to connect with them – to have some fun teaching moments aside from the literacy work we were doing.

Children wrestling with trauma

One of the most important lessons I learned last school year was the benefit of establishing a calm and loving relationship with my students so learning could be easier and faster. Some, perhaps many of my students, were wrestling with emotional and/or physical trauma because of neglect and/or domestic violence in their homes. “Toxic stress,” which is especially high in low-income homes, undermines the children’s mental health and intellectual development, which often leads to behavior problems.

Nicola Kelley Hyser
Nicola Kelley Hyser

It didn’t take me long to learn that literacy – basic reading skills – would take a backseat to mentoring/nurturing them so they could better navigate through emotional minefields and voice their thoughts and feelings … ultimately, so they could actually think clear-headedly about the string of 26 letters before them, learn to legibly write their names and three-letter words, and muster the strength to persist in reading whole sentences by painstakingly sounding out many unfamiliar words while not getting discouraged by their mistakes. I often encouraged them by saying, “Hey, we all make mistakes. I still don’t know how to pronounce some words. This is how everyone learns.” 

Nearly 100 percent of them began the school year unprepared for what they were expected to learn. BUT, 100 percent of them were – when they weren’t acting out in class or emotionally shut down because of the trauma in their personal lives – loving and eager to learn, and that is what I appreciated most and focused on.

Over the course of the school year, our class of 20 dwindled to 14 because six students moved out of the district. In the fall of 2015, only one student in “my” class was reading books in the A – D range; she was reading C-level books at the beginning and “graduated” to E-level books. Three students advanced to reading at A-level; four to B-level; and two to C-level. Four ended the year reading below A-level, but they advanced from where they had started at the beginning of the year. All knew their letters and sounds; in fact, they exceeded those goals. Eleven of 14 students met the goal of knowing at least 10 words from the list of most common 100 sight words. All passed onto first grade, and they were excited and proud about it. And whether they realized or not, they grew emotionally. Their more mature behavior – which led to academic growth – was a testimony to that. 

Universal pre-K

As a result of what I’ve learned this past school year, I firmly believe the greatest gains in education and – more broadly – for communities across Minnesota and the entire country will happen more quickly if the emphasis is on providing quality early childhood education. Although clear evidence supporting universal pre-kindergarten is still out, Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton has made education – in particular, closing the achievement gap – his signature issue since becoming governor in 2011. In 2015, the House and Senate passed a bill providing an additional $400 million for the E-12 system. A fair number of people believe a substantial portion of the budget surplus (in February, a projected $900 million) should be committed to expanding access to pre-K for Minnesota’s most at-risk learners. Still, many others – including Dayton – believe universal pre-K should be the norm.

Universal preschool can drive changes in kindergarten and elementary classrooms. When all or most children enter kindergarten with the benefits of quality pre-K education, kindergarten and elementary teachers can create curriculum and alter their teaching practices to build on what they know children learned in preschool – the goal being to accelerate children’s elementary school learning. In fact, Boston, Massachusetts has one of the most successful pre-K programs in the country and has felt the positive effects of a quality pre-K program “percolating up” to kindergarten and beyond.

The benefits of pre-K can be lost when only some children attend preschool. Instead of building on preschool gains, kindergarten teachers currently must focus on catching up children who did not attend. If the primary goal in K- to third-grade education is to increase the numbers of students reading on grade level by third grade, then quality universal pre-K for 4-year-olds can only improve on the likelihood of that goal being achieved. In 2015, Education Minnesota – a union representing pre-K to grade-12 teachers, school support staff and higher education faculty – issued a report from a committee of experienced early childhood and kindergarten teachers from across Minnesota that outlined the case for high-quality universal pre-K: 

Children who participate in pre-K see educational advantages right from the beginning – quantifiable improvements in reading and math scores to be sure – but also more fundamental and lasting effects such as higher high school graduation rates, lower rates of teen pregnancy, higher income levels, and more stability in their family lives. … The early interventions result in fewer students in need of special education services, for example. The longer-term benefits include an increased tax base, lower crime rates, lower divorce rates and reduced social service costs. … It simply makes good economic sense.

‘Three Little Pigs’ and the value of sharing

Think back. When our teachers and parents read “The Three Little Pigs” to us kindergarteners, it was obvious then that the smarter pig was the one who built his house with bricks. We easily comprehended it was going to take a lot more than a strong wind to knock it down. In fact, the best houses – from the bottom up – are constructed by master builders who use top-grade materials so they can withstand the elements and last hundreds of years. Knowing that sticks and straw are not the best building materials, it’s easy to grasp that creating successful lives and communities should begin by laying strong educational foundations with quality teachers, materials and programs, from the bottom up – beginning with preschool – and building on those years.

In “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” Fulghum wrote:

Without realizing it, we fill important places in each other’s lives. It’s that way with the guy at the corner grocery, the mechanic at the local garage, the family doctor, teachers, neighbors, coworkers. Good people who are always “there,” who can be relied upon in small, important ways. People who teach us, bless us, encourage us, support us, uplift us in the dailiness of life. … And, of course, we fill that role ourselves. There are those who depend on us, watch us, learn from us, take from us. And we never know.

My first year with Experience Corp – AARP at Obama Elementary was one of the best years of my life. I had the opportunity to build strong relationships with my kindergarteners and witness the joy and pride on their faces when they realized how much they’d grown as readers. It brought tears to my eyes and filled my own heart with love, pride and joy. This next school year, I intend to tutor the four students who were not reading at A-level when they graduated kindergarten. I have a bond with them, and I believe it will guarantee greater growth.

“Share everything,” Fulghum wrote. I encourage you to become a tutor/mentor this next school year. Check your calendars and this site: Experience Corps – AARP. Share your time and talents, “fill important places” and change the lives of young students who are waiting to share their enthusiasm for learning with you.

Nicola Kelley Hyser is a freelance writer and editor, living in St. Paul.


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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Moira Heffron on 08/18/2016 - 09:39 am.

    Or maybe…

    Fine article by someone who is doing the work. As an educator myself, I just want to say once more that intense academic focus in pre-K and in some kindergarten programs is in itself the source of stress for children who may have lots of language and love literature but are not necessarily developmentally ready for the types of tasks being presented. And, I would point out, this trend has been supported by large-scale production of materials for this new “target market.”

    • Submitted by Nicola Hyser on 08/18/2016 - 12:58 pm.

      True …

      Some students are not developmentally on par with their peers, and that is stressful for them. I didn’t address this, but an assistant (and trained volunteers) in every pre-k and kindergarten classroom is necessary for this reason alone; otherwise, they can fall further behind. I believe the four students who were not reading at an A-level at the end of the year were not developmentally ready for the curriculum. I’m not sure — percentage-wise — if that’s average with most classes. I do know they advanced in maturity and socially from the beginning of the year, which they were happy about. One little girl was very withdrawn at the beginning of the year; the conversations we had helped her to open up, and she was making better connections between her personal experiences and the reading materials by the end of the year. That oral experience alone — a year before kindergarten — may go a long way toward alleviating some stress, which I believe makes it easier for them to learn.

      I appreciate your comments, Moira.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/18/2016 - 09:59 am.


    When I taught high school history to juniors (typically 16 and 17), I knew a student who couldn’t read at even a 6th-grade level was not likely to do well. Sometimes, with a lot of extra time after school, I could catch a kid up a grade level with some individual tutoring, but there are practical limits to the hours in a day that were available, I was a history teacher – not a language or reading specialist – and a child that’s already a couple years behind, or more, in elementary school, simply falls farther back as they get older. It’s a prescription for failure, not success.

    The more we can do to make up for deficiencies when children are young, the less time and effort we have to spend on remedial work and attention when they’re older. It makes so much sense, and on social, economic and educational levels, that opposition to the idea of universal pre-K has always struck me as exhibit #1 for “head-in-the-sand.” Failure to provide it makes a cruel joke of the oft-used phrase “equal opportunity.” The alternative to spending tax dollars on pre-K and early elementary education is to spend even more tax dollars for remedial programs later, not to mention the social and economic costs of a permanent “underclass” population of people who are underemployed because they lack the necessary language skills, and – most expensive – an expanding prison population of folks whose lack of opportunity steers them toward less-savory means of survival in a society that worships youth, style and money. The first is chronology, and we can’t do much to alter that, but as a society, we can certainly have an effect on the latter two.

    • Submitted by Nicola Hyser on 08/18/2016 - 01:06 pm.

      Thank you, Ray …

      I appreciate the perspective of a secondary ed teacher. I’m wondering if you’ve witnessed behavioral problems with students who are behind their peers? (I thought about addressing the violence in the secondary schools, but had to heavily edit this article for publication.)

  3. Submitted by Pat Thompson on 08/18/2016 - 10:26 am.

    Thank you

    Thanks to Nicola both for the year of her time and for this clear-sighted article.

  4. Submitted by Nicola Hyser on 08/18/2016 - 01:07 pm.

    Thank you, Pat …

    It was truly rewarding!

  5. Submitted by Ericca Maas on 08/18/2016 - 02:01 pm.

    Agreed, but let’s prioritize and start earlier

    I agree with the author that early education needs to be a top priority for Minnesota leaders.

    But with limited state dollars, we do face this question: Who should Minnesota help first?

    1) Younger low-income children who can’t afford quality early ed programs, and who won’t get caught up from a short 2 or 3 hour/day 9-month pre-k program?

    2) Minnesota’s wealthiest families who can already afford quality programs without subsidization.

    If we have to prioritize, and we always do in state budget debates, the low-income children who are continually left behind must come first.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/18/2016 - 08:14 pm.

      This Gets To The Crux Of The Matter

      It’s been many years now since I first heard about kids who entered kindergarten having never held a book, or been read to. It was hard to believe, given my upbringing. I still recall when I was seven, after numerous trips to the library checking out books on her card, my Mom said it was time to get my own card. When my first child was born, he wasn’t a month old before I sat him up in my lap and read “Corduroy” to him. Like the following kids, there were many more books and trips to the library, as well a trips to the Science Museum, Children’s Museum, MIA, hockey games, etc. They were sung to, exposed to many styles of music, and held and tried instruments. When it worked out, they visited some of the construction sites I worked on, getting up close and personal with the real world.

      I note that neither of my parents, nor my wife or I have college degrees.

      I don’t think my kids have missed anything by not being in any formal pre-K programs. Those kids who, for often complex reasons, have never held a book or visted the Children’s Museum or watched a movie at the Omni Theater? Of course they can benefit from pre-K programs.

      Bearing in mind that I am a political progressive, why should the public have had to pay for my kids to be in pre-K? I suspect two reasons.

      First, like Social Security, supporters may think that there will be more political support among voters for a program that everyone can use.

      Second, this may be a back door way to have the public pay for day care. That may well be something we as a society want to do, but if that’s the case, let’s have that debate.

      While I’m not immediately familiar with Obama, I’ve worked in a number of the Saint Paul elementary schools that have children from some very difficult backgrounds. When my kids were kindergarten age, they all knew their colors, how to count, etc. Kids like mine don’t need the public to pay for their pre-K programs. If you’ve made a few trips to museums, are familiar with the inside of a library, and your parents read to you regularly, you’ll probably do fine in kindergarten.

      Let’s put the resources where they are most needed. That doesn’t include subsidizing day care for those who are well off.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 08/18/2016 - 09:23 pm.

      And the rest of us then, you know, the majority?

      So those of us neither wealthy enough to easily afford quality programs nor poor enough, in the opinion of those of your mindset, to warrant aid, do what then? Bankrupt ourselves in the hope our kids can keep up? Gee, thanks. The problem is not a lack of public funds, it is a lack of public will, from a particular subset of public opinion. It needs to be defeated, and removed from debate.

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