05/16/2014 11:01 am ET Updated Jun 19, 2015

A Tale of Two Kindergartens -- Well, Three Now That I Think About It

In conversations about education, there is a lot of talk about "higher expectations," and it isn't always clear what that means.

But in the last few weeks, I've had the chance to compare some kindergarten classes, which clarified the question for me.

The first was at Flat Shoals Elementary just outside of Atlanta. Just about all its students -- most of whom are African American kids from low-income families -- meet or exceed state reading, math and writing standards.

When I walked into its kindergarten class, I saw a calm, nice environment with some very cute (of course) children meeting with the teacher. Others sat at their tables talking about math problems and grappling with such questions as [ ] - 5 = 3, a problem that lays the groundwork for algebra because it requires solving for an unknown. The kids were too busy to pay much attention to me, my colleague, or the principal as we walked in, but when asked, they confidently explained why eight was the correct answer. Because the teacher was busy, I asked the principal how many letters the children were expected to know. "All of them," she said, seeming rather puzzled, adding that they were expected to read and write full sentences.

It was a startling contrast to a kindergarten class I had seen just a couple of weeks before. Also a calm, nice environment with very cute children sitting at their tables, the other characteristics of the class couldn't have been more different. When I walked in, the bored and easily distracted children flocked over to show me the pictures they had been coloring. I asked the teacher, who was doing paperwork at her table, how many letters she expected her students to know by that time of the year, which was early April. "Eleven," she said. How many "sight words"? (Sight words are common words like "an" that students learn to read automatically without going through the laborious process of sounding them out.) "Eight," she said.

Both kindergartens were all-day and primarily serve students of color from low-income families. Both serve many students who arrive at school behind their middle-class peers.

But the contrast between them was startling and gets at the question of what we mean by "high expectations."

If kindergarten teachers don't see their students as capable of doing much more than learning 11 letters in almost a full year of school, their students will enter first grade further behind than when they entered kindergarten. It is easy to see how by third grade the gaps between them and other students around what they know and can do will leave them so far behind that it becomes difficult to catch up.

My experiences in those two classrooms were at the top of my head when I walked into a third kindergarten classroom, this one in Indian River School District in Delaware. Even before walking in, I was knocked out by the writing in the halls outside. Long essays (not in paragraphs, but hey, they can't learn everything in kindergarten) on subjects interesting to kindergarteners. "Dinosaurs are extint," (sic) said one. "That means they are all dead." Once in the classroom, I asked the group, "Do you like to write?" "Yes," was the enthusiastic reply of the less-shy kids. "What do you like to write about?" I asked. "Dinosaurs!" "Spring vacation!" And one totally adorable little girl: "Subtraction!"

The point is that kids love knowing stuff and being introduced to the mysterious world of symbols and facts that adults seem to navigate so easily; an environment of high expectations can help them be engaged and happy.