The Kindergarten Cutoff Debate — Maybe It’s Adults Who Need Help with Learning

By Ellen Galinsky

An article in the New York TimesToo Young for Kindergarten? Tide Turning Against 4-Year-Olds is a status report on a debate that has gone on for decades: What is the right age cutoff for children beginning kindergarten? Connecticut is considering changing its regulations so that children have to turn five by October 1, not January 1 on the year they enter kindergarten, joining 38 states and the District of Columbia that have or are phasing in birthday cutoffs by October 1st.

The debate goes like this. On one side, it is argued that having 4-year-olds in kindergarten puts them at a disadvantage. Many of them have trouble with the work, can’t focus, don’t have self control, and some can’t even hold a pencil. They aren’t “developmentally ready” for kindergarten. In fact, some parents in well-off neighborhoods even choose to delay enrolling their children until they are older (or “red-shirt” them). On the other side, it is said that the children who aren’t “ready” is really code for children who are disadvantaged, those from lower-income families. If they delay entrance, many of them will just be missing a year of school because their families can’t afford preschool and there are limited public options for 4-year-olds. All of these arguments on both sides take on the mantle of reducing the achievement gap between less and more advantaged children — they will be better able, or less able, to succeed if they are older.

The problem is — and it is a big problem — that it is the wrong argument because it is based on incorrect assumptions.

First, no matter where we draw the age cut off, we will find large differences in any group of children who are chronologically within 12 months of each other — whether they are 4-year-olds, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds, or just 5-year-olds–or any age for that matter. Educators and the public need to move beyond the assumption that children of the same age are all the same. They are not, whether they are more or less advantaged!

Second, this debate assumes that there is one curriculum that children have to have. It is a one-size fits-all curriculum and the children who aren’t in the middle either need remediation or acceleration. Even in a world with core common standards, children can learn what they need to know, but in different ways. The one-size-fits-all curriculum does children a disservice because children are different kind of learners.

Third, this debate assumes that skills, like focus and self control, simply appear as the child matures. While these skills do follow a developmental timeline, their use must be promoted — and not by making children sit still but by active activities where they have to remember the rules and not go on automatic, like Simon Says Do the Opposite or Red Light/Green Light.

So maybe it is the adults who really need help with learning. This includes policy makers who frame the debates as if the issue of cutoff dates for kindergarten is going to solve the problem of the achievement gap. And this includes educators who teach as if children were (or at least should be) all the same. We need better pre-service and in-service teaching training programs that help teachers understand how to teach well not in spite of but because of the diversity of their students’ ages and learning styles.

These are the debates we should be having!