Education Commentary

Four Myths About America’s Kindergartens

By Samuel J. Meisels — January 19, 2017 5 min read

How have we ended up with such chaos in the “garden of children?” By assuming that the school curriculum and organization is monolithic and unchangeable. Not so many years ago, parents encouraged their children to skip a grade in order to get ahead. Now they keep them back a year to give them an academic edge on their peers. Over the past decade, driven by our national preoccupation with “excellence,” “accountability,” and “competitiveness,” Americans have fallen victim to several myths about how children should begin school, creating unprecedented problems for our nation’s kindergartens that may well reverberate into high school and beyond.

  • Myth 1: Raising the school-entry age produces smarter kindergarten classes.
  • There is no magic age for starting school. At 5, American kids, on average, enter kindergarten earlier than kids in Japan, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and the Soviet Union. Variability within groups of children is normal. In any typical group of 5-year-olds, there may be a developmental range of nearly two years.

By moving the entry date earlier, only the relative range is affected. There will always be a youngest child in every class. Moreover, moving back the entry date gives aid and comfort to those who wish to create a more academic, less developmentally appropriate curriculum by encouraging them to consider kindergartners capable of doing 1st-grade work. Besides, older entry ages will require more preschool or child care, a difficult-to-afford, if not unavailable necessity for many middle- or low-income parents.

  • Myth 2: If kids aren’t ready for 1st grade, we do them a favor by holding them back.
  • Research has shown that children who are retained in a grade perform less well in future academic work and may drop out of school altogether; for kindergartners, retention has been shown to have harmful effects on socioemotional development and self-esteem.

    Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study--a survey of more than 20,000 students--has shown that students who were never retained spent less time in remedial class; had higher grades; scored higher on reading, math, and science achievement tests; felt greater control over their lives; and demonstrated a more positive self-concept.

    Moreover, the decision to hold a child back may be based more on teachers’ subjective judgments of students’ learning abilities than on clear-cut poor grades or low achievement. Members of racial minorities, boys, and children from poorer homes are much more likely to be held back than their white or more affluent peers. Although failure rates have increased for all students since 1975, they have increased at nearly twice the rate for blacks as for whites.

  • Myth 3: Immature kids or slow learners can benefit from two years of kindergarten.
  • A recent study of “developmental kindergartens"--one of the many names given to extra-year or transitional programs designed to provide children who are academically, socially, emotionally, and/or physically “immature” with more time to grow and develop--showed that by 3rd grade, no differences in reading or math scores were found between developmental-kindergarten graduates and traditional kindergartners.

    Even less encouraging, recent findings from a statewide study in Virginia showed that developmental-kindergarten students who spent two years before reaching 1st grade fell behind their peers who had only one year of kindergarten.

    Worse, elementary schoolteachers don’t seem to distinguish between children who were retained before 1st or 2nd grade and those who attended developmental kindergartens. A study has shown that, although teachers’ perceptions of developmental kindergartners were more favorable than those of retained students, there were more similarities in perceptions of the two groups than differences.

  • Myth 4: Parents can help their children get ahead in school by holding them out from kindergarten until age 6.
  • Research has shown that being one year too old for a grade level increases a child’s risk of dropping out by 40 percent to 50 percent for urban students. In addition to disrupting this delicate age/grade correspondence, the “holdout phenomenon,” as it has come to be called, expands the age range in the classroom to 24 months--meaning that the oldest child may be 30 percent older than the youngest when entering kindergarten.

    Because of holding out, 1st-graders who are barely 6 years old are being compared with 7-and-a-half-year-olds on standardized tests and must compete with older children for parts in plays and places on sports teams.

    As the average age of a kindergarten class climbs, teachers inevitably shift their focus of instruction upward to meet the needs of older students and the expectations of their parents. Ironically, this reinforces the increasingly academic environment that brought parents to recommend holding out in the first place!

    The result of these misconceptions is a four-tiered kindergarten class in which about half of the children enter at the developmentally appropriate time, another 15 percent to 20 percent are held back to repeat kindergarten, 10 percent to 15 percent have already been through developmental kindergarten, and an equal number were held out by their parents and are now entering kindergarten for the first time at age 6.

    How have we ended up with such chaos in the “garden of children?” By assuming that the school curriculum and organization is monolithic and unchangeable. Rather than tampering with the system, and insisting that the academic curriculum of the later grades be flexible enough to accommodate the varied needs of students developing at different rates, we’ve tampered with entry ages--and our children’s developing psyches.

    What’s needed is a willingness to reorganize schools in several key ways: by encouraging schools and teachers to adapt to students’ varied learning styles rather than always expecting students to conform to school routines; by abandoning traditional elementary-school grade structure in favor of multi-age groupings with individualized programs for different students; by letting students of different ages and abilities tutor each other; and by devising alternative ways to assess what children know that recognize their right to be treated fairly, flexibly, and individually.

    A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 1991 edition of Education Week