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Cut Off!

Big NYT article over the weekend on kindergarten cut-off dates (the age by which children must turn 5 to enter kindergarten). Connecticut (along with New York City) has some of the latest cut-off dates in the country, and is considering moving them up. As my colleague Andy Rotherham notes, this is complicated stuff, and given the difference from other states, in may make sense for Connecticut to do this. But it is worth noting that there's been a trend of states moving up kindergarten cut-off dates over the last few decades, such that, while it was once the norm for kids to start kindergarten at 5 or almost 5, the trend has moved closer to kids starting at 6 or almost 6. And it's worth questioning the rationale there. Basically, the line has gone something like this: "As academic expectations in elementary school increase, kindergarten is starting to look a lot more like first grade used to, and young fives, or kids who aren't 5 yet at the start of the school year, just aren't developmentally ready to handle it, so let's have kids start school later." This may appear superficially to make sense, but it actually doesn't all that much.

To begin with, preparing kids to meet elementary standards doesn't mean that kindergarten has to look like first grade. It's possible to give children an educationally robust kindergarten experience that build their language, literacy, math, and social-emotional skills while maintaining a learning environment that looks more like a traditional kindergarten. The problem is a lot of kindergarten teachers--and the principals they report to--don't really know how to do this.

Moreover, age is hardly the sole determinant of children's readiness for kindergarten: early childhood experiences and individual development play a big role here. That speaks to the importance of leaving decisions about when to enter kindergarten up to parents at the individual child level. But it also underscores the importance of providing access to quality early learning opportunities--in pre-k and earlier--so that more kids are ready for kindergarten when they reach the entry age.

Finally, it's not like kids who turn 5 after new cut-offs disappear. They're still there, and what happens to them during the extra year they're now not in kindergarten matters. But states by and large have not supplemented new cut-off dates with expanded pre-k offering for kids who now must wait to attend pre-k. (California's creation of "transitional" kindergarten for children with birthdays between old and new cut-off dates is a noteworthy, and positive, exception here.) For children whose families can't afford quality pre-k, that often means another year of missed learning in which children fall further behind their peers. And it's also a real economic burden to working class families struggling with child care. Basically, states have used moving kindergarten cut-off dates to shift more of the burden of preparing kids to reach 3rd grade standards onto families, without explicitly saying that.

And that's not even taking into account the implications that kids who start kindergarten a year later are also a year older throughout their entire educational experience--which research suggests may have negative consequences down the road when kids get older.

All this speaks to two things: First, we need to complement increased student expectations in later grades with better access to high-quality pre-k and other early learning opportunities for children before they get to kindergarten. Second, we need to shift to thinking much more in terms of a continuum of children's early development from early childhood through elementary school. Regardless of where we set the kindergarten cut-off date, kids are going to be at different points when they start kindergarten, and our schools need to be able to support all of them.

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