4-Year-Olds In Kindergarten? One State's Debate

Erin Ferrantino rarely has to consult the birthday chart in her kindergarten classroom to pick out the Octobers, Novembers and Decembers. This year, there was the girl who broke down in tears after an hour’s work, and there was the boy who held a pencil with his fist rather than his fingers.

Those two, along with another of Ms. Ferrantino’s students who were 4 when school started, will be repeating kindergarten next year.

“They struggled because they’re not developmentally ready,” said Ms. Ferrantino, 26, who teaches in Hartford. “It is such a long day and so draining, they have a hard time holding it together.”

Soon, Ms. Ferrantino may not have to be on the lookout for children with birthdays in the late fall. Connecticut, one of the last states to allow 4-year-olds to enter kindergarten, is considering changing its rules so that children would have to be 5 by Oct. 1, rather than Jan. 1, spurring a contentious battle over access, equity and persistent achievement gaps based on race and class.

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

Supporters of the earlier cutoff date in Connecticut say it would level an unequal kindergarten playground in which the youngest students are often poor minorities whose parents cannot afford to give them this so-called gift of time. But others worry that the change could leave thousands of 4-year-olds in educational limbo, perhaps worsening the readiness of those without access to high-quality preschools.

“We may actually be harming them by not letting them start until a year later,” said Sara Mead, an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit consulting firm in Washington.

While kindergarten began to flourish in the United States in the late 1800s as a way to teach children as young as 2 and 3 through play, it has become increasingly academic, particularly over the past decade amid an emphasis on standardized testing throughout public education. That, in turn, has spurred a widespread 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 interstate agency, with California the most recent to make the move. Connecticut is the only state that still has a year-end cutoff, though New York and New Jersey are among eight states that leave the decision to local districts. For most districts in New Jersey, that date is Oct. 1 , while for most in New York, it is in December. (New York City’s is Dec. 31.)

'Glaring weakness'
In Connecticut, about 24 percent of the approximately 39,000 kindergartners who start school each year are 4 years old. But in the state’s poorest districts, 29 percent of kindergartners start at 4, while in the wealthy ones, that number is 18 percent. At the same time, about 2 percent of kindergartners in those wealthy districts start at age 6, compared with fewer than 0.1 percent in the poor areas. The proposed change in Connecticut would take effect in 2015.

“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.”

There is research suggesting that children who enter kindergarten later perform better on standardized tests, but critics contend that the entry age often serves as a proxy for family background and preschool experience. In any case, they say, such benefits disappear by middle school.

Indeed, Ms. Mead and others point to research linking redshirting to higher dropout rates down the road as older students struggle to fit in with their younger peers, and to lower lifetime earnings as a result of a later start in their careers. And some parents and teachers say redshirting — a term borrowed from college athletics, in which students are pulled from participation in order to begin their eligibility at an older age — can exacerbate problems like bullying and low self-esteem among teenagers.

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

'Much more mature'
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.”

Parents like Courtney Gates-Graceson, a lawyer and single mother in East Lyme, Conn., said boys, especially, might find the age difference harder to overcome. Her son, Sebastian, turns 5 on Sept. 29, and she decided to enroll him in a private preschool, at a cost of $14,000, rather than to start him in kindergarten. “I don’t want his academic enthusiasm to be quashed if he can’t compete with the older kids in his class,” she said.

But what about those who do not have $14,000 to spend?

“Kids will have to wait around another year to get into school; that’s time wasted,” said Milly Arciniegas, president of the Hartford Parent Organization Council. “They’ll be 19 when they graduate — no thanks, that’s not the solution.”

Paul Wessel, executive director of Connecticut Parent Power, a statewide advocacy group, called the plan “an incomplete solution to a larger problem.”

Trying to soften the impact
Hartford school officials said children with late birthdays could be absorbed into the district’s free preschool programs, but other districts do not have that capacity. Connecticut education officials had called for expanding the state-financed preschool program, known as School Readiness, along with raising the kindergarten entry age, but legislators balked at the estimated $40 million cost. The program subsidizes preschool for 10,000 3- and 4-year-olds, primarily in 19 low-income areas.

Similar concerns prompted California, which voted last year to move its cutoff date to Sept. 1 from Dec. 2 one month at a time starting in 2012, to establish so-called transitional kindergartens for children with birthdays in the fall.

Karen Gasparrini, a kindergarten teacher in Stamford, Conn., said that without a quality preschool option, “all they’ll be is older; it doesn’t mean they’re better prepared.”

In Westport, Conn., an affluent district where nearly all children attend preschool, Elliott Landon, the schools’ superintendent, said he had noticed no difference in the 70 kindergartners who were 4 when school started.

“The earlier we get them, the better,” Dr. Landon said. “If they’re in need of remediation, we can do that; and if they’re in need of acceleration, we can do that, too.”

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  • by October Mom on May 29, 2011 at 03:44 PM
    I agree, my child was born on October 16 (the original cut off date for children to start school in North Carolina)I allowed him to start kindergarten. The worst mistake of my life. He was the smallest kid & he was behind in his social skills. I eventually held him back. Now he is at the top of his class & doing wonderful. It was a difficult decision for me to have my child retained but it was the best decision I have ever made. I speak from experience when I say 4 years old is too young to start school.
  • by Joanne Location: Goldsboro on May 29, 2011 at 06:24 AM
    Ridiculous, sending kids so early. As it is everyone else is raising kids these days instead of the parents. They go to day care as young as 2 months old. We need to get back to old school where Mom's stay home with the kids until they start kindergarten at age 5. It can be done.
    • reply
      by ridiculous! on May 29, 2011 at 06:49 PM in reply to Joanne
      it can be done, if one spouse works in the daytime and the other spouse waits tables at night or something. how horrible was that, i cannot tell you. my husband and i never saw eachother, our kids didnt see us together, i never got to do bedtime stories or anything, so whats the sacrifice? and sorry, a family of five cant survive on what my husband makes, so, if were going back to the good ol days, the economy needs to get back there too when milk cost a nickel or whatever!
  • by Mother on May 29, 2011 at 06:12 AM
    As a mother of a young adult who was "red shirted" and a high school teacher, I can tell you that waiting until a child is 5 to start kindergarden is a must. My daughter is a successful professional who excelled in school in every way; including socially. She has a September birthday. I can almost always tell the boys with summer and fall birthdays when they enter ninth grade. They are less mature and do not get along well with the older students. I takes until they are in 10th or 11th grade for them to be socially adapt to high school. Most of the older students with winter and spring birthdays transistion well.
  • by DISGUSTED Location: NC on May 29, 2011 at 04:28 AM
    I personally think they R pushing the kids to far, to fast! Boys especially, they don't mature a s quiclky as girls and our grandson's teachers were please that our son waitined to send his boys a year later. They R great students.
  • by relieved on May 28, 2011 at 07:14 PM
    im just relieved that there is proof of this difference--all the while i thought there was just something wrong with me, maybe it was because i was actually behind my peers socially due to being younger.
  • by concerned parent on May 28, 2011 at 05:10 PM
    I have a son who will not be able to start kindergarten when he is five because he missed the cut off by two days, staying behind for two days seems to be unfair to my son. I must say that he is very bright, he is reading and speaking a little bit of Spanish, so I believe that he is very prepared for kindergarten.
    • reply
      by yikes on May 28, 2011 at 07:17 PM in reply to concerned parent
      that is a dilemma! im all for kids waiting rather than going in early, but two days, thats harsh! i guess all you can do is continue working with him, and try to get him into some sort of socially interactive group to get him ready for next year. at least he will be ahead of everyone!
    • reply
      by Concerned Parent on Jul 21, 2011 at 12:16 PM in reply to concerned parent
      I think it is really sad that the kids that miss the cut off by August 31 and is developmentally ready have to be left behind. Especailly when they are reading and writing.
  • by a bad parent on May 28, 2011 at 04:15 PM
    i just want to tell all those people suggesting that since we put our kids in daycare, pre k, kindergarten, etc.., that we are putting our kids off on others--get a life! why is it that people get off so much on judging other people!? its like you need a scapegoat for whats wrong with your own life, and the world. sorry, you dont know everyones story individually, how can you--no, how dare you judge us! you probably dont even have kids! but if youre one of the lucky few with perfect children, well congratu-freakin-lations!
  • by Anonymous Location: La Grange on May 28, 2011 at 03:38 PM
    I believe 4/5 is too young, especially for boys. And how many know that the COMPULSORY school age for NC is 7 to 16?
  • by Anonymous on May 28, 2011 at 01:24 PM
    I feel that maturity should be taken into account over age. There are 4 year olds that can handle kindergarten over 5 year olds who obviously can't or TK/PK wouldn't exist. Offer a simple trial day for children on the age border and decide from there.
  • by Kane on May 28, 2011 at 10:26 AM
    You can thank the welfare mentality for this mess. Four years old? Again, parents must instill a sense of importance in education at home. At age four, parents should be reading to their kids and encouraging them to count and think. But to often the parents are kids themselves and barely know how to read or write.
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