Saturday, May 28, 2011

Too Young for Kindergarten? Tide Turning Against 4-Year-Olds - By WINNIE HU

Should we start our child in kindergarten at 4 years old? 5 years old? Later? Earlier? This is perhaps the first major question many parents face about their child's education. And, to be sure, it is a big decision. Many factors go into such a decision including the parent's own professional goals, family economics, socialization, and sometimes just wanting a break from the kids during the day. Guilt clashes with responsibility, constraints interact with possibilities and peer pressure combines with traditional values. After nearly 3 decades of a trend toward younger and younger schooling of children, there appears to be increasing consideration for a later start date for kindergarten. This recent article by Winnie Wu of the New York Times captures well what is going on nationally and especially in the New York Metropolitan area. The cutoff date in New Jersey is an individual district's responsibility.

One of my proudest legacies during my time in the Hoboken School District was working with then Early Childhood Director Ms. Jessica Peters in bringing the Tools of the Mind preschool and kindergarten program to the City of Hoboken. That program has been universally accepted and has created a wonderful bridge between preschool and kindergarten for all the families in Hoboken. -Dr. Petrosino

The policy debate among lawmakers, educators and children’s advocates echoes the playground discussions in well-off neighborhoods, where parents have long weighed the advantages of delaying kindergarten on an individual basis — particularly for boys — a practice known as redshirting.

Supporters of the earlier cutoff dates 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. 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 began to flourish in the United States in the late 19th century to teach children as young as 2 and 3 through play. It has become increasingly academic amid an emphasis on standardized testing throughout public education. That has spurred a movement to limit the “children’s garden” to 5-year-olds.

Today, 38 states and the District of Columbia have established or are phasing in birthday cutoffs by Oct. 1, according to the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan agency, with California the most recent. Only Connecticut still has a year-end cutoff; New York and New Jersey are among eight states that leave the decision to local districts. For most New Jersey districts, that date is Oct. 1; for most in New York, it is in December. (New York City’s is Dec. 31.)

“It’s a glaring weakness that we should have fixed long ago,” said Mark McQuillan, Connecticut’s previous education commissioner. “Many of the wealthy parents enroll their children at 6 or 6 ½, and other families — particularly poor families — enroll their children as early as 4 ½ because they need the school support. It’s a huge developmental span.”

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 academic benefits disappear by middle school. Children who start school later appear to have a decidedly distinct athletic advantage throughout middle school and possibly later.

Indeed some point to research linking a later start to higher dropout rates down the road, and to lower lifetime earnings because they begin their careers later. Some parents and teachers say redshirting — a term borrowed from college athletics, in which students are pulled from participation to prolong their eligibility — can compound problems like bullying and low self-esteem among teenagers.

The Connecticut Education Department has not studied the effects of age differences on achievement, but some kindergarten teachers have reported that their youngest pupils are more likely to miss class, have difficulty focusing and generally require more handholding.

Jennifer Dominguez, a kindergarten teacher in Hartford, said she felt so strongly that 4-year-olds were at a disadvantage that she held back her own son, Kobe, until he was 5; he will turn 9 on Dec. 30. “The January birthdays are so much more mature and able to handle the curriculum,” she said. “The October, November and December birthdays, they’re just learning about what school is.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
First published on May 28, 2011 at 12:01 am

Picture: Hoboken Journal website

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