I opened up my email this morning, and my daily New York Times update was there. There is a big article in the Magazine about when a child might really be ready for kindergarten, and how the “rules” are different all over the country. Why kids who are “redshirted” seem to do so much better. My blood started to boil. Here’s why- and it is a summary of what’s wrong with education today:

  • Many more parents are working. They need full day child care, not half-day solutions. AM/PM kindergarten is inconvenient, meaning parents often keep their kids in preschool/kindergarten centers for as long as possible, to avoid the problems in accommodating the “normal” school day. This is not a decision being made based on whether a child is developmentally ready for kindergarten-it’s being made based on what parents can afford to do, and what works with their demanding work schedules.
  • Studies have shown that kids do benefit more from full day kindergarten that half-day. But that “advantage” disappears by the end of first grade. In the May/June 2006 issue of The Journal of Educational Research,(1) researchers from Colorado State University and The University of Colorado looked at the reading and math achievement of kids attending full day and half day kindergartens once these kids hit 2, 3rd and 4th grade- several years after leaving kindergarten. What did they find?
  • The study was done to help districts figure out whether instituting Full Day Kindergarten programs were worth while.  Figures from the year 2000 estimated that 55% of children in the US attended Full Day kindergarten, up from 30% in the 1980’s. The goal of full day kindergarten was not only to provide more hours of education, but to “better prepare children for first grade and result in a decrease in grade retention” while helping parents better manage family and work responsibilities. The arguments against were that young children would be  overly tired with a full day instruction, missing learning experiences at home, and that “public schools should not be in the business of providing custodial care for 5 year olds.”
  •  The Study concluded that the additional learning advantage that full-day kindergarten students experience “declines rapidly, so much so that by the start of first grade, the benefits have diminished to a level that they have little practical value.” p. 267  School administrators and teachers thought “ teachers are so concerned with students who enter the classroom with nonexistent reading and math skills that they spend the majority of their time bringing these students up to minimal math and reading criteria at the expense of working equally hard with students whose reading and math achievement are above average.”  Thank you, No Child Left Behind.
  • Then we have, from the previous issue of the Journal of Educational Research, a study looking at the Academic Performance Gap Between Summer Birthday and Fall Birthday Children in Grades K – 8, done by researchers at Georgia State University. (2)   This study looked at the process of “redshirting” kindergarten students and the alleged advantages.  They concluded that there is a performance gap that decreased rapidly in grades 1 to 3 but persisted up until Grade 5, and then levelled off completely in Middle School.
  • The researchers took data from the National Center for Education Statistics on 21,260 kindergarten students, identifying 3,863 kids with summer birthdays of June, July and August, and 2,693 students with September, October and November birthdays- the oldest kids in the class.  The researchers looked at reading and math achievement  and added variables regarding learning, self control, social interction, as well as height and weight considerations.  They found:
  • Older kids were on average almost 2 inches taller than their youngest classmates.  The academic differences- reading and math achievement scores- benefited the older kids, although the differences between approach to learning, self-control and social interaction were very small.  The advantage conferred was greatest in reading, and this effect was more prominent among boys than girls, and persisted through Grade 5, although it declined every year after kindergarten.  However, overall, there was no difference between boys and girls in the “benefit” of redshirting.
  • In September of 2006, Newsweek had a front page story about The New First Grade– Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast, Too Soon?” While the article points out that science has showed us all children are wired to be able to learn from birth, the whole school readiness and the pressure to get kids to read earlier and earlier is palpable.  The New York Times is actually late to this debate.

    Yet here’s the secret folks- the one no one pays any attention to:


    Children are not small adults.  They have immature brains.  Their brains grown and perform tremendous feats of wiring over the first couple years of their lives, BUT IT NEVER STOPS.  Brains also go through bursts of development at certain times , slowing down, starting up, and differentiating.  If you are interested in this stuff, start out with the great PBS Documentary- The Secret Life of the Brain.

    They’ve actually found that all those old “ages and stages” set out by Jean Piaget- about how a child’s thinking and processing changes over time – lines up with actual changes in how the brain grows and functions through functional MRI studies.  So it should really be no surprise whatsoever to line up the following facts:

    When kids hit that 5 -6 age range, they get out of Piaget’s “Pre-operational stage” and hit the Concrete Operational Stage, where they hand out until around age 11.  Kids hit an age where magical thinking starts to diminish, and more organized, logical thought begins to enter the picture.  Kids start understanding reversibility (ie. addition is the “opposite” or subtraction) and start being able to solve concrete problems.  Around age 12, kids start to enter the period of Formal Operations, where they can think in more abstract ways, and really incorporate logic into their actions- they really begin to understand “if-then”.


    At age 5 to 6, kids brains stop the huge growth that has been going on up until this point, and the growth settles down, in favor of more neuron to neuron connections.  Kids are them better able to sit on one place for longer periods of time, attend, and really start understanding things like math and reading.  Problem Solving.  Before this time- they don’t have the brain hardware to run those software programs. The magical thinking goes away, which is why we can all anticipate the days of Santa and the Tooth Fairy rapidly leaving after a kid hits 1st or second grade.  (Gee, just when kids are supposed to start learning to read…an accident?  I THINK NOT.) The jig is up, and logic starts to prevail.

    Then, when kids hit 11-12, ( Gee, when Middle school starts… huh… accident?  No Way) they start to become capable of more abstract thought, exercising judgment and the like- coinciding with another huge jump in brain growth in the pre-frontal cortex- the areas responsible for judgment, attention executive functions, organization and the like.  And this area is not done developing until we are about age 22.

    The implications for all of this is huge.  but the fundamental problem here is realizing we can’t push kids beyond the point where their brains are, developmentally.  You can’t expect an eight year old to think abstractly or show excellent “previewing skills” .  When we ask them “Didn’t you think that could happen?” when they have a mishap, the honest answer is No- because their brains won’t let them preview alternative consequences for several more years, that’s why.

    And that’s why when I see a bunch of 18 and 19 year old soldiers getting involved in stupid accidents and bad situations in Iraq, I get upset.  Not because they aren’t responsible for their actions- but because all the fine tuning in their judgment skill apparatus is still under construction- we are sending neurologically immature people to do a job we need fully formed humans to do.

    This has implications in:

    Parenting (Don’t expect your kids to get things they can’t yet- because of their brains, not because you haven’t told them 800 times already….)

     Juvenile justice: We don’t arrest six year olds( except in Florida, perhaps) because they really can’t have the intent to commit a crime and understand the cause and effect of their actions at that age.  It’s neurologically impossible.  Idiotic  actions of teenagers need to take into account that their judgment apparatus is not fully formed.  It doesn’t excuse their actions, but they clearly need a different kind of rehabilitation and program that sending then to an adult prison system.

    Schools and No Child Left Behind– we can only push early achievement so far; if kids are having problems, we need to look at how they learn, not try the same failed thing over and over again…..that program has already failed their hard-wired system.

    Work Environments:  If you think your 20 year old co-worker is making poor decisions- you are probably right, and they should be partnered with older people so they can learn the ropes.  Likewise, college may be the safest place to park kids age 18 -22 while their brains finish gelling.

    Okay- I think my blood pressure is down, and thank you to anyone who has stayed through this diatribe to the end.

    If we don’t understand how that chunk of meatloaf works between our ears, how do we get anything accomplished?????

    (1) “Comparing Longitudinal Academic Achievement of Full-Day and Half-Day Kindergarten Students” Journal of Educational Research, May/June 2006 [Vol. 99 (No. 5)] Jennifer Wolgemuth, R. Brian Cobb, Marc A. Winokur, Colorado State University, Nancy Leech, University of Colorado, Denver, Dick Ellerby, Pudre School District, Authors.

    (2) Academic Performance Gap Between Summer Birthday and Fall Birthday Children in Grades K – 8 TC Oshima & Christopher S. Domaleski, Georgia State University- Journal of Educational Research, March/April 2006 [Vol.99 (no. 4)]