Judge the Class, Not the Kid by Beth Graue

Judge the Class, Not the Kid

NY Times

Beth Graue, a former kindergarten teacher, is a professor of early childhood education and the associate director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Changing the kindergarten entrance age or delaying kindergarten entry seem like simple fixes for readiness problems. What could be easier than allowing children to have a bit more maturity as they come to school?

The age advantage at the start of school is temporary, small and relative to the ages of the children in a class.

This is especially true today, as kindergarten, experienced by many of us as a soft and social transition to school, has become increasingly academic. Easels and blocks have given way to a narrow focus on reading and math. In such a souped-up environment, the youngest children are at a disadvantage, right?

But simple solutions rarely solve complex problems. The flaw in the logic is that readiness is largely relative. In Connecticut, children born late in the year are in danger because they begin kindergarten at 4. In Wisconsin, with a Sept. 1 entry, summer birthdays are worrisome and children with fall birthdays are seen as too mature. Being on the wrong side of any entrance date is a concern for some teachers and parents who prize a supposed advantage of the oldest in the group. But this advantage is temporary, small and relative to the ages of the other children in a class.

Readiness is also relative to the curriculum -- children have to be ready for something. The run-away kindergarten curriculum is designed less for the developmental needs of children than anticipation of some later high-stakes test. A real example of a chicken and egg problem, the escalating demands of this curriculum coincide with a kindergarten of increasingly older children. Do we look for older kindergartners because we are asking them to do essentially first grade tasks?

When two-thirds of 4-year-olds are enrolled in some kind of preschool program, I have to wonder how tinkering with the age of kindergartners makes any sense. We could do much better by reorienting the kindergarten to children who are there. This kindergarten is inclusive of both 4- and 5-year-olds, of tiny boys who aren’t interested in scissors and big girls who read. It balances attention to the social and emotional needs of children and their cognitive growth. It is a place where play is not a four-letter word but a rich source of learning and development.

None of this requires a lessening of expectations -- it just necessitates a system that values children and their needs.

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