New York City public schools’ age cutoff has never made much sense to me. In the rest of the country (and at most NYC private schools) children must turn five by the fall, or even summer, to enter kindergarten. In our city, the December 31st cut-off means some kindergartners are four years old (and some pre-K students are three) for the first few months of the school year.
Connecticut, one of the last states with an end-of-year cutoff, is considering a change, which would make their kindergartners, on average, an older bunch. This was the subject of a much-discussed recent article on kindergarten readiness.
A year end cutoff wouldn’t be such a big deal if the curriculum in kindergarten were the same as in days past. But many of these cutoffs were established in an era when four- and five-year-olds were learning through constructive play, and in most cases in half-day increments–an extension of preschool, really. Kindergarten today is similar to what 1st grade was 30 years ago.
In my daughter’s pre-K class kids are expected to sign their names each morning, identify letters and numbers, and recognize the names of their teachers and 17 other classmates (flashcards were sent home mid-year for reinforcement). Yet some of these children are still in strollers, and during my two years of volunteering, I have dealt with a few children who didn't quite know how to use a toilet on their own.
In kindergarten, with much less play time, much more sitting still and concentrating, and no rest period at all, the less mature children (very frequently the youngest boys) tend to fall apart or act out.
It's generally pretty easy to tell the December kids from those born in January. My April daughter is fine in this structured, pre-academic environment, but my August daughter was not. She was the smallest in the class and unable to sit still for long periods. At the start of kindergarten, she couldn't write her name. Later, when we had found out she had some learning problems in addition to being developmentally “younger,” we asked the school if they would consider holding her back a year to mature. But by their cursory checklist, she was sufficiently at grade level (which we later found to be inaccurate), so they would not consider it; we switched her to a private school.
I’ve heard veteran teachers lament how the early school culture has changed. Two teacher friends have opted to hold their sons back, to give them “the gift of another year.” They did not "redshirt" to give their children some sort of edge over the others, but to ensure they were in developmentally appropriate settings. My parents decided to give me another year of kindergarten–a somewhat novel idea at the dawn of the '80's–and it's one of the best things they ever did for me (I was the runt, with a November birthday)
Certainly, some four-year-olds are ready for kindergarten–and yes, someone will always have to be the youngest or the smallest. But would a case-by-case readiness assessment or at least some individual consideration be too much to ask, given the increased rigor of today’s kindergarten and the tender age of some of the students?