When It Comes to Kindergarten, Keep the 4-Year-Olds, Weed Out the 7-Year-Olds

kindergarten cut-off age, red-shirting
"Who thinks everyone deserves a quality education regardless of financial status?" "I do!"

I started kindergarten in 1981, when I was 4 years old.  Back then, the typical half-day class involved tracing some letters and numbers, having a snack and taking a nap.  (Was nap time really necessary?  We were only there for 3 hours!)  My class was monitored by a kind, grey-haired lady named Mrs. Dashner, who was more a grandma figure than a teacher.

Flash forward 30 years, and my daughter’s kindergarten class is helmed by a bright, energetic 20-something working on her second master’s degree.  Kindergarten is no longer a 3-hour babysitting session, it’s a full day, full-on experience.  Recent topics of study in my daughter’s class have included the life cycle of butterflies and chicks, replete with live science lab where caterpillars cocooned and chicks incubated.  The butterflies were released on Friday and the chicks are now growing contour feathers, but my little chickadee is still only 5.  She won’t turn 6 until over a month into first grade.  She’s part of a dying breed of kindergartners who are 4 at the beginning of the school year.  According to the New York Times, “Connecticut, one of the last states to allow 4-year-olds to enter kindergarten, is considering changing its rules so that children would have to be 5 by Oct. 1, not Jan. 1, prompting a fight over access, equity and persistent achievement gaps based on race and class.”

The debate about changing the cutoff date in Connecticut centers around the ways poor families use kindergarten.  Wealthier (read: white) parents in Connecticut often red-shirt their children (especially boys), sending them to kindergarten not at 4 or even 5 but 6 years old in some cases.  The Times says, “Supporters of the earlier cutoff date in Connecticut say it would level an unequal kindergarten playground in which the youngest are often poor black and Hispanic children whose parents cannot afford to give them this so-called gift of time.”  They note, “Others worry that the change could leave thousands of 4-year-olds in a holding pattern, perhaps worsening the readiness of those without access to high-quality preschools.”

Kindergarten rules of entrance, though determined by each state (and in some states local school districts), are becoming more standardized across the country.  “38 states and the District of Columbia have established or are phasing in birthday cutoffs by Oct. 1,” the Times reports.  Connecticut is the only state with a year-end cutoff.

It seems to me that policymakers in Connecticut are looking at this problem from the wrong side of the issue.  If the problem is that poor parents need to send their children to kindergarten by age 4 because they can’t afford pre-school or childcare, why is the system catering to the wealthy?  (Because it does that.  I know.)  Instead of pushing the minimum kindergarten entrance age up to 5, why not enact a law that requires a child to enter kindergarten by no later than age 5?  In other words, the minimum age of kindergarten enrollment shouldn’t matter as much as the maximum age of enrollment.  Whether you allow kids in at 4 or 5, everyone in the class should be aged within a year.  Four and a half-year-olds shouldn’t have to compete with 6 1/2-year-olds turning 7.

If New York State had an October 1st cutoff date in place, my daughter would not have been able to start kindergarten this year.  Because my daughter was only 4 when the school year began, I actually didn’t enroll her in kindergarten.  Last fall, I had “the gift of time,” so I decided for various reasons it would be best to wait and send her when she was 5 turning 6, like most kids.  In April, our circumstances changed, and I – like many of the poor parents discussed in the Times article – found myself needing to use kindergarten as a form of free childcare.  The wonderful staff at the amazing public school my daughter attends were extraordinarily accommodating, and they allowed her to join a kindergarten class at the end of the year, since they’d initially suggested she skip kindergarten and go right to first grade.  Were she not as academically successful as she is, that may not have been possible, and that’s due to both the pre-school programs she attended and her family background.  (Notes the Times: “Some research suggests that children who enter kindergarten later perform better on standardized tests, but critics contend that family background and preschool experience often have a bigger influence on academic success than age. In any case, they say, such benefits disappear by middle school.”)

Pre-school may actually be the real culprit here, since – in Connecticut, anyway – affluent parents are spending $14,000 a year on early childhood education.  A 6-year-old with four years of that kind of educational training will obviously have a huge advantage over a 4-year-old without any pre-school experience.  That’s why it’s so important that free programs like Head Start (which my daughter attended, along with two sliding-scale pre-school programs) retain their funding.

Karen Gasparrini, a kindergarten teacher in Stamford, told the Times, without a quality pre-school option, “all they’ll be is older; it doesn’t mean they’re better prepared.”

Photo via Flickr

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