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Should Kindergarten Be Mandatory?

There was a time when kindergarten was designed to help children ease into the school system. That meant plenty of time for play.  But increasingly it has become a place to teach reading, writing and math.  The upshot has been a debate over whether kindergarten should be made mandatory ("It's true: Kindergarten is optional in California," Los Angeles Times, Aug. 21).

At present, 17 states and the District of Columbia require kindergarten.  But each state sets its own rules about the age necessary to enroll.  The usual age is 5, but parents can wait until their children are 6. Because of pressure to raise standards, states are increasingly moving up cutoff dates for kindergarten enrollment in what is essentially scholastic redshirting.  For example, in 1975 only a few states required children to be 5 before Sept. 15.  Today, however, about three dozen states mandate it ("Should Children Be Held Back for Kindergarten?" The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 2014).

When my mother tried to enroll me in kindergarten several months before I turned 5, school officials refused to do so, claiming I was too young.  But when my mother threatened to enroll me in a nearby private school, they relented.  I felt right at home with the slightly older children, and was glad my mother wouldn't back down.

But not all children even at age 5 can profit equally from enrollment. They need more time.  Only their parents can make that determination.  The fact is that young children mature at different rates. For example, In the distant past, it was not uncommon for children to skip a grade because their teachers and their parents believed they would profit more by doing so.

To help settle the debate about mandatory kindergarten at age 5, it would be interesting to compare the subsequent success of children who were allowed to begin school in first grade with their peers who were required to begin school in kindergarten.  I realize that any such pilot programs would have low external validity in that they wouldn't generalize well to other children, settings and times, but at least they would provide further evidence to help lawmakers make an informed decision.  

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