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Setting Entry Age For Kindergarten Triggers Debate

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Among young children and adults alike, kindergarten talk is often about birthdays.

To children, the topic may be a matter of pride--who is older, who got more presents--but to adults, it is one of serious debate. For years, teachers, early-childhood experts, parents, and legislators have squabbled over the precise age at which children should be eligible to enter kindergarten.

Most recently, the debate has resurfaced in Ohio, where teachers are pressuring the legislature to raise the entrance age to prevent classrooms full of "summer babies."

A bill under consideration there would move the date by which a child must have turned 5 in order to enter kindergarten, from Sept. 30 to June 1, over a phase-in period of four years.

In other states, the date varies from June 1 in Indiana to Dec. 31 in three states and the District of Columbia.

In the past 15 years, almost half the states have stiffened their entry-age standards in response to concerns that increasingly demanding curricula in the early grades were setting younger children up for failure. (See Education Week, 2/28/90.)

But opponents argue that tinkering with dates diverts attention from the more pertinent need to change the curricula and improve teaching methods. Some also question whether delaying kindergarten entry for children whose parents cannot afford preschool makes them more vulnerable to falling behind once they do start school.

A Rank-and-File Motion

The effort in Ohio began several years ago when a group of teachers collected more than 8,000 signatures on petitions urging the legislature to change the kindergarten-entry age.

"We were finding every year that just because of maturity, because of their age and very short attention span, [younger] children who were just as bright were scoring low on tests and qualifying for special federal programs," said Cheryl Taylor, a kindergarten teacher at Brantner Elementary School in Mount Carmel, who led the unsuccessful crusade in 1991.

Ms. Taylor said that 80 percent of the children needing remedial work were those with summer birthdays.

Although the initial bill never got out of committee, another push from the teacher rank and file has brought it back to life.

"In the days of pushed-down curriculum and all this testing, it's important for children to be more ready," said Joan Antle, a former kindergarten teacher who several months ago found sponsors for a new bill in State Rep. Charles R. Brading and State Sen. H. Cooper Snyder.

The bill crafted by Mr. Snyder failed on the Senate floor last month. But the House education committee is considering a companion version that would be sent back to the Senate if it passes.

An aide to Mr. Brading said the prospects of the bill were unclear as of last week. House lawmakers were considering adding an amendment that would give local school boards the authority to adopt the earlier cutoff date. That solution, which seven other states have espoused, might fare better in both houses, the aide said.

'Pragmatic' View

Ms. Antle, now a 3rd-grade teacher at Bigelow Hills Elementary School in Findlay, Ohio, said there is broad support among those who work with children every day to raise the entry age. "Kids are always playing the catch-up game if they're not naturally developmentally ready when they start," she said.

Ideally, the kindergarten curriculum would be made more developmentally appropriate to accommodate a range of maturity levels, she added. "But I don't see the curriculum changing. We're continuing to expect more."

James K. Uphoff, the chairman of the department of teacher education at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, agreed.

"I would much prefer changing what we're doing in school," he said. "But I don't trust the politicians, and I don't trust the public, and that's why I reluctantly support [raising the entry age] from a very pragmatic point of view." The only danger, he said, is that as students get older, the curriculum becomes even more difficult.

Mr. Uphoff is the author of several books about school readiness, including Summer Children: Ready or Not for School and Real Facts From Real Schools, which was recently published by Modern Learning Press in Rosemont, N.J. Both books describe the results of several studies that found younger children in any grade were far more likely than their older peers to become dropouts, be referred for special services and special education, be diagnosed as learning disabled, have discipline problems, and score low on achievement tests.

In one study Mr. Uphoff conducted of 278 K-6 students in Hebron, Neb., the youngest children made up 23 percent of the total group studied but accounted for 75 percent of those who had failed one or more year of school.

While some might argue that raising the entry age merely shifts the burden of being the youngest to another group of students, Mr. Uphoff says the change in fact increases the developmental readiness of the entire class.

He and others advocate a national entry age for kindergarten.

Meeting Children's Needs

The Ohio Education Association, which backs the bill being considered by the legislature, said it would prefer moving the date even earlier. "We believe that March 1 ought to be the cutoff date," said Mike Billirakis, the union's president.

One of the nation's largest child-advocacy groups, however, opposes the measure. "If there are concerns that large numbers of children are not ready, then the issue is how to better meet their needs," said Barbara Willer, the executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

And some policymakers in Indiana, which gradually moved to a June 1 cutoff date over several years, are now not so certain the state made the right decision, said Mary Beth Morgan, an elementary education consultant for the state department of education.

Although there has not been any official movement to return to a later cutoff, "there has been conversation about it," she said.

The Indiana law says that each district must have an appeals process through which parents can try to admit their children early. Although the state encourages localities not to base such decisions on potentially biased readiness tests, some districts have done so anyway.

In a few cases, districts have required that parents pay for the tests, which some are not able to afford. "We run into a good deal of equity issues," she said.

But the real issue, she added, is "should children be ready for schools, or should schools be ready for children?"

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