The Zero Sum Society

Matt Mayer

10/1/2007 3:45:57 PM - Matt Mayer

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.

This age discrepancy has ramifications well beyond the kindergarten classroom. When those seven year-old kindergartners are high school seniors, their substantial age advantage means you will have more and more nineteen year-olds in the classroom. What will be the statutory rape implications of having them routinely in school with kids as young as thirteen? Those nineteen year-olds also will have that extra year or more of physical maturity to use playing football and other contact sports against younger kids. Do we really want a future Ohio State nineteen year-old All-American linebacker like James Laurenaitis on the football field with a fourteen year-old just hitting puberty? Seems like an unfair fight. It is.

The issue here isn’t about kindergarten. It is about how we seek to game the system whenever we can to gain whatever advantage we can. What message are we sending our children? The message seems to be that bending the rules just short of breaking them is okay. The problem is that the bending area near the breaking point almost always has consequences. Those consequences then lead to more government interference in all aspects of our lives as the government steps in to do what our conscious used to do.

So, a very questionable accounting loophole leads to the Enron debacle, which leads to the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. The teachers’ unions’ intransigence on accountability leads to millions of poorly educated children, which leads to the Leave No Child Left Behind legislation. Congress’ use of secretive earmarks leads to billions in wasted tax dollars, which leads to – well it doesn’t lead to anything as Congress doesn’t police itself. The point is that when the government gets involved, it invariably overreacts, and we all lose when that happens.

At a time when every possible advantage and loophole is zealously explored and used, it should come as no surprise that we have pushed zero sum competition as far down as kindergarten. We no longer stand our ground by stating, “Just because they do it doesn’t mean we should.” Instead, we excuse our behavior because “everyone else is doing it.” How do we expect our children to navigate the bend, but don’t break world when we do whatever gets us ahead?

As a society, we should aim for something better. In the meantime, get ready for kindergartners who shave.