This recent story in the Tribune revisited the hot issue of age cutoffs for Kindergarten in Chicago Public Schools. The rule is as follows: your child must be at least five but not older than six by September 1st in order to attend Kindergarten. In the past, Principals had some wiggle room with regard to bending that rule. As admissions to some Chicago Public Schools, especially Magnet and SEES programs has become increasingly competitive, the district as a whole has had to become very strict about the age cutoffs.
Naturally, this upsets some parents who feel that their children are just not ready for Kindergarten at age five. These parents tend to be middle and upper-middle class, and their children are more often than not boys with summer birthdays. These parents want the option to hold their children back a year so that they will be six when they start Kindergarten, a practice commonly referred to as "redshirting." According to Newsweek, about 10% of kindergartners were redshirted in 1980. Since then, the number has doubled.
Obviously, it's an issue on the minds of parents these days. In addition to the Tribune article, it's been addressed here in Newsweek and in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers and well as Slate and the New York Times and Babble and the SF Gate Mommy Files.
So what's going on here? Are our five-year-olds becoming less capable of
handling kindergarten? Or has kindergarten changed so that it no longer
meets the developmental needs of our five-year-olds?
I can see why many parents want to delay sending their kids to kindergarten. I have a friend who sent her daughter to a Waldorf school for preschool from age 3 - 5. The Waldorf philosophy does not stress academic skills and furthermore, this child has some major health issues that required her to miss a lot of school. So when the child aged out of the Waldorf Program, my friend started looking around for Kindergarten. Her daughter turned six in May but my friend felt that she just wasn't academically or socially ready for 1st Grade. Little did she know that this was going to be such an issue.
She started with her neighborhood school thinking that they would probably be more flexible. She was told, in no uncertain terms, that her daughter would be six on September 1st and would, therefore, be put into 1st Grade. It didn't matter that she couldn't read or that she would have to be absent periodically and might have trouble keeping up.
In the end, my friend put her daughter into a Catholic school, even though her family is not at all religious because a parochial school had the leeway to listen to her concerns and place the child in Kindergarten.
birthday is August 24 -- since I was the youngest of three kids and already reading at age four, my mother was chomping at the bit to send me off to school. Of course back in the dark ages of the 70's kindergarten was half-day and I think we still had snack and nap! I was nearly a year younger than everyone in my
class my entire academic career. My mother says that by 3rd grade she was regretting sending me to school having just barely turned five. But by that time, it was too late. Honestly, I don't remember it being an issue for me but then again, from grades 3 - 6 I was in a Mixed-Age classroom so it's possible I didn't notice age differences that much.
I was pretty much clueless about my relative immaturity until 7th Grade. I went to Middle School and puberty. Ugh. Who among us has fond memories of pubescence? I was not only nearly a year younger than most of the other girls, but also naturally petite and a late bloomer. Which meant that I was shorter, smaller and, um, flatter than the other girls. But I was also completely disinterested in romance. I remember hearing girls talk about sex (who knows if they'd actually done the things they talked about; I hope not for their sake but they sure were big talkers). When I heard these things what came to my mind was "Ew."
Middle School and High School were years of painful awkwardness. But whose aren't? When my High School senior class took a
trip to Washington DC, I was the only one who was still 17 (why was
this important and frustrating? Because the drinking age in DC at that time was 18!) I had finally discovered an interest in boys by this age, by the way, but my parents and the school I went to for High School was so intensely religious that acting upon those interests was damn near impossible.
Fast forward 20 years and now I
myself have a young five-year-old with a July birthday. I felt that she
was more than ready for kindergarten academically. But the thought did
cross my mind that she just might not be ready for full-day kindergarten
in terms of her social-emotional development. CPS, however, did not
give me the option to hold her back or send her for a half-day. And while she has had some
challenges adapting to kindergarten, she has thrived for the most part. I still worry that she'll have some of the same challenges I did -- especially considering how fast kids seem to grow up these days!
Of course I am influenced by my own experience, but all things considered I don't think redshirting is a good idea. Someone in the class has to be the youngest. Being the youngest might be challenging for a child, but is it our job as parents to protect our children from all life's challenges?
I'll admit, my opinion is heavily influenced by some of my favorite thinkers and writers. Sir Ken Robinson , for example. He poses a very good question: why do we group our schoolchildren by age anyway? It seems to be the most
arbitrary of criteria! He argues that it is the education system that needs to change in order to better suit the needs of our children. If people are starting to recognize that the demands we're making on five-year-olds aren't helping them succeed, then maybe we need to change our demands. Not by making kindergarten easier (half-day kindergarten with a nap and a snack sounds great to me, but honestly I think my daughter would be bored) but by re-constructing the way important kindergarten concepts are introduced.
I also like what Neuroscientist Lise Eliot (Pink Brain, Blue Brain) has to say about redshirting. She notes that while redshirting might give boys a modest competitive advantage in the younger years, that leg up seems to level out by later elementary school. It can then become a liability in middle school because boys who were held back tend to engage in more risk-taking behaviors and experience more emotional and behavioral problems. Then what happens in high school when you have a bunch of boys who started kindergarten at age six? They are now 19-year-old men -- not psychologically adult, of course, but physically they are men. Older ages in high school are actually inversely correlated with high school and college completion rates!
I also think that some of the reasons why parents are tempted to redshirt boys far more often than girls is because of the sexist culture we're living in. We parents like to think of ourselves as immune to gender stereotypes when it comes to loving our children. But then why are boys held back at twice the rate of girls? Is it because five-year-old boys are not as smart as
five-year-old girls? Is it really because they tend to have shorter attention spans, poorer fine motor skills, and less impulse control? Or could it be that it is culturally
acceptable for girls to be small, cute, and less physically powerful
than their peers. We don't worry as much about our girls being competitive. We are not so accepting of small boys in our culture. And we know, on some level, even when our sons are babies, that they are going to be judged their whole lives by their success.
On the other hand, Malcolm Gladwell makes the very good point in Outliers that nothing breeds success like the feeling of success. Your typical six-year-old boys will feel more competent, calm, and attentive in a classroom than your typical five-year-old boy. He won't get in trouble as much or experience as much frustration with the schoolwork. That positive experience paves the way for future positive experiences with academics and with peers.
If I am brutally honest with myself, I think I am more opposed to redshirting in theory than in practice. Yes, our education paradigm needs to change. But in a huge, monolithic district like CPS is that going to happen in my children's lifetime? Probably not. Would I feel differently if my children were boys? Yeah, I probably would. We all want to give our children the best opportunities in life and sometimes that means making hard decisions. So, maybe CPS needs to take another look at this one.