Parents, Educators Debate Delayed Entry to Kindergarten
> 6/4/2007 3:55:12 PM

While studies indicate that kids who begin preschool earlier have an easier time making the transition from young child to student, parents and professionals remain somewhat divided over the relative benefits (and possible ethical challenges) presented by the ability to "redshirt" certain kids, or delay, usually by one year, the date at which they will actually enter kindergarten. Everyone involved seems to want the best for "our" children, but the practice may further pre-existing advantages and makes for larger discrepancies within a student body. At the heart of the debate is a question: is it a child's responsibility to be ready for school or should a school be required to make sometimes dramatic adjustments in order to accommodate each incoming child? Is there a level-headed solution that preserves the concept of equal opportunity for all kids?

"Redshirting" initially referred to the phenomenon by which high school athletes are allowed an extra year of eligibility by delaying their actual competitive team membership for one year, thereby allowing them to compete on the varsity level after graduation while working on an additional degree. The process exists almost strictly within the fields of more competitive (and profitable) college sports, utilized in order to facilitate better performance and higher rankings for each school's varsity squad. Were it not so widespread, this practice could be seen as facilitating unfair advantages for those schools with the resources to better put it into play.

Parents often feel that birthdate cut-off policies leave children with early birthdays at a disadvantage, placing them in classes where most of their peers are nearly one year older and, presumably, more cognitively advanced. That small measure of additional time for development can make a dramatic difference among such young children. Some end up taking several years to catch up. The practice is much more common among affluent children, especially those attending private schools, whose parents wish to "level" the playing field (or, rather, to give their children a slight edge whenever possible). But it's not simply better grades that these parents want for their kids, its greater self-esteem. Research has accordingly confirmed that students who start school later have more confidence in academics and social interactions than their younger peers. Similar studies found that, while actual age does not give children the advantage that many believe it will, relative age differences affect them long after the implied cognitive gap should have, theoretically, expired. When the kids who started kindergarten later are still scoring better than their eighth-grade peers and are considerably more likely to take high-level standardized tests and enroll in college, the appropriate usage of redshirting may need to be reconsidered.

Experts estimate that nearly one in ten kindergarteners have been held back in this way, and in direct contrast to suggestions that the practice should be curbed to avoid certain children being left behind, nationwide teacher surveys indicate that its more frequent application would benefit class cohesion, as near-majorities reported that large portions of their classes were not prepared to take on the work assigned. The state of California has already adopted measures to change the cut-off date and better ensure that the children enrolling in kindergarten are closer to the same age and cognitive level.

Also present in this debate is the issue of the changing role of kindergarten. Once designed as a place where children learn how to play and socialize, it is increasingly a place for kids to work on reading, writing and simple math in order to register adequate scores on any number of standardized tests used as general measures of a school's success. Advocates of this changing approach argue that it is necessary to allow these children a competitive edge in an increasingly cut-throat professional world, but others claim that most children are simply unable to absorb the material effectively at such a young age, and that forcing it on them before they're ready does not heighten their development at all, leaving them socially maladjusted and even more unprepared for the outside world.

Of course, no matter how much individuals shape the system, there will always be children who are younger and, in most cases, less advanced than their peers. As lower-income families generally have less time to care for young children, it will be more difficult for them to postpone kindergarten for a year (or afford day care while waiting), so classes will further tilt in a direction strongly favoring those whose parents rank higher on the socioeconomic scale. Complicating the problem even more is the fact that public preschool spots are also more likely to go to the children of financially advantaged parents. And one year in a private pre-school program can be just as expensive as two college semesters.

The idea is not new, but in a time of No Child Left Behind and ever-increasing concern over the levels of performance exhibited by American students, it has become crucial to start them in the right place, as challenges and failures encountered early in the education process will most likely follow them throughout their academic careers. In summary, we need to ensure that as many children as possible are absolutely prepared to complete kindergarten-level work when they begin school. Allowing for increased access to pre-school programs and implementing changes in our outdated registration cut-off laws, rather than encouraging further redshirting, seems like the most egalitarian option.

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