The individual enters the playing field. He towers over the other players. Onlookers stare in disbelief as his movements contain a strength and fluidity leagues above his rivals. Over the course of the season, he leads the league in the major categories of performance. Supporters brag about his accomplishments. Rivals fruitlessly try in vain to find ways to raise their performance to match the All-Stars. Welcome to baseball and Barry Bonds? Not quite. Welcome to kindergarten in America.
In most school districts in America, the Board of Education establishes a date when a child becomes eligible for kindergarten. Typically, if a child turns five before September 30 (or some other early Fall date), she is eligible for kindergarten. Historically, parents were eager to enroll their children once they turned five. That eagerness is waning.
Here’s why. Because of the ever-increasing competitiveness in getting into America’s best universities, parents are seeking ways they can give their children any advantage possible. Some of the things they do like hire tutors or invest in the latest fad learning programs are fine. The entire $500 million line of Einstein videos and music is based on the premise that such supplements will increase the intelligence of infants. With studies coming out casting serious doubt on that premise, the market will dictate the fate of those products.
With age requirements, however, the advantage isn’t market-based and it is real. Factually, there is growing disparity in the ages of children in kindergarten that poses some fundamental inequities. An elementary school principal in a suburban school district noted that parents are holding their children back from kindergarten even when they turned five as far back as five to six months before the eligibility date. The vast majority of these children don’t suffer from developmental issues. That means a kindergarten class will contain children as young as those who turned five on September 30 and children who turned six some five months before that, which makes them seventeen months older than their classmates.
To put it into proper perspective, those seventeen months represent more than one-fourth of the five-year old’s entire life. It should come as no surprise given this significant age differential that those older kids – some of whom will turn seven during the school year – outperform the other children in all areas of schooling. As a recent report noted, the advantage for these older kids carries throughout their entire K-12 years. These findings will lead more parents to hold their children back and push the date from April to even earlier so that their children gain the advantage of being the oldest.
Matt A. Mayer, President & CEO of Provisum Strategies LLC and Adjunct Professor at The Ohio State University, is the author of the book “Homeland Security and Federalism: Protecting America from Outside the Beltway” available in June 2009.