This week's N.Y. Times Magazine explores another inlet of anxious parenting with a piece that poses the question: When should children begin kindergarten? Sounds like good fodder for several thousand words of upper-middle-class hand-wringing? You betcha. But instead, Elizabeth Weil's article is a fascinating glimpse into the world of accidental social engineering -- wherein the age of kindergarten becomes the tool for manipulating test scores, boosting achievement and ensuring self-esteem.
As No Child Left Behind and other manifestations of the accountability movement have increasing pushed states to "raise standards," states have responded by making kindergarten more academic and delaying the kindergarten cutoff date. In response to the intensified academics, many parents are "redshirting" younger kindergartners and keeping them out of elementary school for an additional year of preschool. This practice -- apparently popular in some affluent communities -- has led some kindergarten classrooms to include more than 25 percent redshirted children.
"In certain affluent communities the numbers of kindergartners coming to school a year later are three or four times the national average," Weil writes. Because of the paucity of publicly funded preschools, another year of preschool often means another year of paying tuition, an expense poorer families can't necessarily afford. But since research shows that children in achievement-oriented educational systems (like those in Japan, the U.S. and France) who are older than their classmates not only tend to do better in the classroom, but also in non-academic subjects like sports, redshirting naturally contributes to the "achievement gap" between rich and poor. With all the money, time and worry devoted to bringing every child up to snuff, the redshirting phenomenon underscores the deep flaws in our current K-12 system. As Weil notes: "[G]iven the socioeconomics of redshirting ... the oldest child in any given class is more likely to be well off and the youngest child is more likely to be poor."