Not Kid Stuff Anymore? Institutional Change in Kindergarten Education

LPC Faculty: Jennifer Russell
Funding Agency: Spencer Foundation

This project explores the extent to which kindergartens have shifted from a developmental model, emphasizing social skills and play, to a year of formal academic instruction. It employs concepts from organizational theories and findings from three separate but interrelated sub-studies in order to illuminate how shifting conceptions of appropriate kindergarten education and state and local policies influence kindergarten teachers’ instructional practices. The first sub-study documents change in public conceptions of appropriate kindergarten education in the last 50 years through analysis of archival sources. Findings suggest the shift may be the result of a range of actors: the media’s coverage of kindergarten issues; parents seeking to accelerate their children’s competitiveness; and the formalization of academic instruction in governance structures such as state curriculum standards and the activities of a professional association.

In the second sub-study, findings from multilevel modeling of national survey data (ECLS-K) suggest that the shift to an academic model at the institutional level is also evidenced in teachers’ reported practices. The majority of kindergarten teachers surveyed teach academic literacy skills, but the frequency of academic instruction is associated with dimensions of teaching context. Teachers in states with strong accountability policies and in public schools with a greater proportion of minority students teach literacy skills more frequently. Finally, the third sub-study explores the mechanisms connecting teachers with pressure to teach academic skills through analysis of observations and interviews. Overall, teachers emphasize academic instruction, but employ different pedagogical techniques. Varying patterns of tight and loose coupling between teachers and actors in their organizational context and broader environment are associated with the frequency of didactic versus constructivist academic instruction. The study contributes to the understanding of shifting logics and practices in kindergarten, but also considers the case of kindergarten in order to demonstrate the utility of an institutional theory approach to questions of educational change. The findings have significance for the case itself, but also reveal how shifts in education are not simply the result of changing policies but are also associated with institutional pressures such as shifting conceptions of appropriate education.