Elementary fairness

Four years ago, the Commonwealth Book Club read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers - a book which surveys some of the latest research on the factors contributing to human success.

One factor Gladwell deals with in detail is the importance of being born in the right part of the year.  Apparently, when young children begin an activity which has a cut-off date for participation, those with birthdays just after the cut-off date do much better than those with birthdays just before that date.

Gladwell focuses much of his attention on Canadian youth hockey, but recently, there has been significant research indicating that birth-dates and cut-off dates also have significant impacts on the success of children in the first years of school.

For example, if a school system requires that a student entering kindergarten be five years old by September 30 – Virginia’s legal requirement – then students born in October and November will probably do much better (on average) than students born in August and September.

The explanation is that students born just after the cut-off date are nearly a year older than those born just before that date.  And when you’re a little kid, a year is a big percentage of your life.

Consider the situation in Virginia schools.  Suppose two kids, with similar backgrounds and native abilities, start kindergarten this September.  One was born on September 30, and thus begins kindergarten on her fifth birthday.  The other was born on October 1, and starts school the day before her sixth birthday.

Which child would you expect to display more maturity, greater reading ability, and a quicker grasp of arithmetic?  Which child do you suppose the teacher will be more likely to identify as “gifted”?

After all, one child is almost 20 percent older than the other.

Gladwell is a journalist, not a researcher, but there is increasing research to support the notion that children born late in an age cohort are at a significant disadvantage compared to those born early – and that this disadvantage can persist throughout that child’s school career.  

If this is true – and really, it would be a fairly easy thing to research – then it’s truly a fundamental injustice.  

And it would be relatively easy to fix.  

All we’d need to do is re-structure our elementary schools to take birthdays into account.

The more ambitious plan would be to have three starting dates during the elementary schools’ academic year.  By putting some of our elementary schools on a year-round schedule – and allowing parents to choose those schools – we could have new cohorts starting on say, January 1 and May 1.  That way, the difference between the oldest and youngest child in a cohort would be four months, not 364 days.

A less ambitious plan would be to group entering students into age-related cohorts within a school, while keeping the same calendar.  If a specific school had three kindergarten classes, the entering cohort would be divided into three equal-sized groups, based on birthdate.  The late-born students would undoubtedly be, as a group, less mature and less able than those across the hall – but they would be far more competitive within their own classroom.

Now, it will be argued that truly outstanding children will overcome the disadvantage of starting school at a younger age than their classmates.  And this is true.  Children of exceptional intellectual ability – and those with remarkable diligence – will find a way to overcome the artificial advantages our bureaucratic rules create.

The problem with that sort of thinking is that human institutions should not, as a general rule, be designed around the qualities of exceptional individuals.  

Think about it.  Suppose we designed our legal system around the qualities of people of exceptional moral character.  We wouldn’t need criminal laws.  We could stop locking our houses and our cars.  We could save a lot of money by laying off most of our police force.

Anybody think those are good ideas?

If not, then perhaps it would be better not to design our schools around the qualities of the smartest, most diligent students.

Now, it might be objected that grouping students into sub-cohorts with an age-range of only a few months will show up in standardized testing.  But sooner or later, we’re going to have to recognize that standardized testing – in its present form – has been a huge mistake.

And designing educational programs around the testing regimen is a classic instance of putting the cart before the horse.  

Besides, that problem could be eliminated by going to a year-round schedule, with new cohorts starting kindergarten every few months.

What’s far more important than any objection is that every student’s potential be fully developed.  That’s not just a question of fairness to the student – but fairness to ourselves.
As we never tire of saying, our children are our future.

If that’s true, why on earth would we condemn a substantial portion of them to a bad start?


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