Today, the AP reported that state senator Joe Simitian (D Palo Alto) is trying to pass a bill that would change the age of admission for children entering kindergarten or first grade. The goal is two-fold, according to the article in Education Weekly. First, it argues that children are not prepared for kindergarten at four years old. I can understand that possibility. I didn’t even realize that it was standard for children to enter school at four years old in California. I personally turned six during kindergarten and as far as I know, that’s pretty standard in the country. However, the science behind this is mixed. The research that seems to be the most cited is a 1986 study by Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith. It basically says that moving the age earlier makes little to no difference:
Despite the promises, providing an extra year before first grade does not solve the problems it was intended to solve. Changing the entrance age will not correct the problems of the youngest first graders because a new youngest group will emerge.
The study looks at programs that hold kindergarteners back a year and concludes that it doesn’t help proficiency and if anything, hinders development, because of the emotional stigma of being held back, but that’s another story. Newer research has been more positive with a RAND study in 2005 concluding that there is a slight boost to reading scores when students wait until they are 6 rather than 5 to enroll. The study showed that in both reading and math, students who waited longer not only scored higher, but grew more and that the effect was amplified in children in economically disadvantaged families. While this is positive, there are two things missing from it. The study needs to be more longitudinal. It claims that the effects are lasting, based on persistence for two years. I would be interested to see whether these effects stay longer, as the Shepard and Smith research claimed that within three years, the effects were negated. The other point of contention I have is that it shows that the students were at higher levels and grew more when they were older, but isn’t that just logical? What the study should really show is which students gained more and were at a higher level when they were the same age. For example, would a student do better at seven if they had started at five, rather than waiting until six. I suppose opponents may argue that the student will have thirteen years of school no matter what and that it’s how they do at the end of the grade that matters, not at a particular age, so that point could be moot. The question becomes how prepared a student is when they enter the workforce, rather than at a certain grade, given that that is arbitrary. I’m sure if we didn’t start students until they were 20, they’d be at a higher level than a 5 year old, too.
However, the second reason, the one that will sway the most opinion because California is $20 billion in debt, is that the bill’s proponents claim that the date change will save $700 million each year. I don’t really get the math behind that. I can understand that perhaps the first three years when the age requirements are being phased in, there will be fewer students in school, so there may be some money saved because of individual student costs. But, once the date is changed, there won’t be fewer students coming each year. There will be the same number, as the kids who didn’t quite make the cutoff the previous year will be added onto the following year. In the long-run, it doesn’t change anything. On top of that, the costs associated with a different number of students for one individual year can’t possibly be particularly high. It’s not like a school is going to fire a teacher for a year, because they have fewer students in that grade, only to hire them again the next year. If anything, it just means students in the roll out years of the bill will have slightly smaller class sizes, which isn’t a bad thing.
The RAND study points out one major downside of delaying the start of a child’s education – childcare costs. The parent has to do something with their child for another year while they’re not old enough for school, which disproportionately hurts poorer families more than richer ones. The bill tries to counteract this problem by taking half of the savings and funneling it toward state preschool programs, but as mentioned before, the savings won’t amount to a proportional amount and additionally, not all children benefit from state preschool programs anyway.
This is what you’d need to deal with for another year if your child has to wait.
Moral of the story? There may be some academic benefit to the change (yay!), but the financial differences in the long-run are negligible and end up costing parents more (boo!). my personal thought is that if the state can somehow help parents pay for the extra childcare (through tax-credits or what have you), then I’m all for it, but that it shouldn’t be seen as a cost-cutting measure.