The Birthday Effect: Firm Cut-off Age for School Admission May Impose a Lifetime Disadvantage

School_Classroom
This is a picture of Bedford School, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The school, located in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, was built in 1915. Picture credit: Andrew Postell, 2014, Creative Commons Attribution license.

Educational program design would likely not be controversial if children were interchangeable parts, if they were like components on a factory assembly line.  In that case, different children could be placed in the same seat every year and have  a predictable and consistent outcome.  Traditional educational models seem to be predicated on the assembly line model. Children are expected to bend to the system; the system does not accommodate the individual.  One area where inflexibility has apparently resulted in measurable harm is in age cut-offs for kindergarten admission. Longitudinal studies show that younger students, as a group, perform more poorly on achievement assessments than their older classmates.  Called the  ‘birthday effect’, a strict age cut-off policy results in a kind of age lottery. Winners of the lottery are rewarded with lifetime benefits, benefits that are evident in areas outside the academic sphere.

study out of England, for example, demonstrates the disadvantage suffered by younger children in early school years and in their later academic careers.  Members of the younger group are less likely to attend university than their older peers; if they do go to a university, it is likely that they will matriculate at a low-tier institution. The age cut-off in England is fixed firmly at September 1, which is the beginning of the school year.  Consequently, the youngest children in a grade are those born in August. Called ‘August children’, these students statistically perform more poorly than their older classmates in tests that look at academic achievement and ‘happiness’.

There are educators who do not find these study results persuasive. The former Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Chris Woodhead, for example, believes it would be wrong to make all children”‘comfortable”.  In commenting on the  findings about firm age cut-offs, Sir Woodhead declared, “If kids are always completely confident and comfortable, they aren’t going to make much progress.”

A debate about the ‘birthday effect’ has been examined by systems outside of England.  Norway, for example, also has a firm cut-off age for school admission. In a paper presented at Harvard University in 2004, Bjarne Strøm, a researcher from the Norwegian University of Technology and Science, discusses the birthday effect on 16 and 17 year-old students.  Professor Strom provides a detailed analysis of how early disadvantage endures throughout the academic careers of the younger student.  Professor Strom concludes, “These results suggest that more flexible enrollment rules should be considered to equalize the opportunities of the children”.

Yet another study, cited on NeuroNet, addresses the impact of the ‘birthday effect’  on grade retention. This study demonstrates that the youngest children in a kindergarten class are five times more likely than their older peers to be held back in a grade. The experience of being retained in grade can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche and future achievement.

Advocates for student discontent aside (i.e., Sir Woodhead), a growing body of research indicates that rigid adherence to age cut-offs is likely not in the best interest of children. Studies suggest that children should be evaluated, individually, for school readiness.  While this may not suit a structured, one-size-fits-all educational model, it may suit very nicely the student for whom the educational system is presumed to exist.

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One child bullying another. Studies show younger children in a class more likely to be bullied by their older and larger classmates. Public Domain Photo

Creative Writing and the Brain

brain imaging activity NIH 2
These pictures show magnetic imaging impressions of brain activity. These reflect responses to specific visual stimuli. On the left, the subject was looking at faces. On the right the subject was looking at houses. The MRI frames were provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Just about everyone agrees that writing is an essential skill.  Even the most frugal educators include at least some writing instruction in their curriculum.  What modern science is teaching us is that writing is not only a skill; it is also important in brain development.

Neurologists, with the aid of imaging technology, have been able to pinpoint the areas of the brain that are activated during specific creative activity. This applies not only to writing, but also to music, drawing and even “brainstorming”, which is preparatory to creative work.

During  creative writing activity, the right and left hemispheres of the brain interact with each other.  Although creativity is considered to be  ‘right brain’ centered, it seems that to complete the creative act, the left brain has to kick in.  This phenomenon was observed not only during the writing phase, but also during the period preparatory to writing, when ‘brainstorming’ takes place.  Visualizing, imagining material to be written, precipitates  coordination of different parts of the brain.

A study from the University of Greifswald, Germany looked at brain function in experienced writers.  The individuals in this group had highly developed writing skills.  The brain images of the writers showed increased prefrontal and basal ganglia activation. Also noted in the images was an increased development in the right cuneus, which is involved in reading processes.

Another  study at the University of  Greifswald looked at the creative writing processes during various stages of the work.   The authors of the study noted changes  in brain activity as the work progressed.   In the planning, or brainstorming phase, “cognitive, linguistic, and creative brain functions mainly represented in a parieto-frontal-temporal network” were activated.  During the actual writing phase,  “motor and visual brain areas for handwriting and additionally, cognitive and linguistic areas” were activated.   The authors of the second Greifswald study were careful to distinguish between groups that engaged in creative writing  and those that merely copied material.  The verbal association and integration patterns evident in the creative writing group were not evident in the brain images of the copiers.

Traditionally, creative writing has been part of many school programs because basic writing skills are important and creative writing is considered to be a nice extra curricular activity.  Perhaps it is time to reexamine the importance placed on writing and other creative activities.  Science seems to show that brain development is enhanced by exposure to creative exercise, whether that exercise is in writing, music or art.  Each of these areas seems to activate different parts of the brain.   Educators–and that certainly includes parents–should consider the evidence and think about considering creative activity to be as essential as the established pillars of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

the three rs John_Chippendall_Montesquieu_Bellew
Master of one of the three Rs, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew. Here Mr. Bellew is giving a public reading. He enjoyed a reputation for being a great orator. Image derived from a cartoon, 1873. Copyright expired.

Common Core Values

HarvardCollegeCharter
A copy of the original Harvard College Charter, issued in 1650

There is no dearth of theories on how to educate children. Arguments about technique would be less fraught if everyone could agree on what constitutes a well-educated child. With a common goal in mind, people might willingly travel a common path. But paths diverge early in the education conversation, and the divergence generally centers around values.

Whenever the term ‘values’ is brought up people tend to become defensive, as though the values issue is a construct of the current contentious political scene. It is not. Values have always influenced curriculum.

There was a time, for example, when studying classics was the core curriculum in elementary school. This was a value-determined choice. The moral content of classics was considered to have a salubrious effect on children’s developing psyches.

The oldest universities in the US originally had religious affiliations or religious goals. Harvard was a divinity school for Puritans. William and Mary required all students to be members of the Church of England. Yale University from its earliest days had a close association with Puritanism.

Cotton_Mather
This is a portrait of Cotton Mather, approximate year 1700. The artist was Peter Pelham. In 1703 Mather persuaded Elihu Yale to endow a new university–Yale. Mather believed Harvard had become too radical in its teaching. He wanted Yale to be a place where Puritan principles would be nurtured.

Values are, and always have been, an intrinsic part of education. That doesn’t mean religion has always been associated with schools; in some cases a determination to offer secular, or religion-free education has been a driving motivation. This choice is still an expression of values, the values of diversity, free expression and free association.

Today, as parents, educators and citizens in general try to sort the different educational theories, they must be clear that the discussion is not merely about methodology. Method, the path traveled to achieve a ‘good’ education, is shaped in part by the desired destination.

Do people want open-minded, adventurous citizens who question authority? Do they want obedient citizens who respect tradition and accept the wisdom of their leaders? Do they want technocrats and scientists who forge ahead without complicating work with consideration of consequences and moral content? Or, do people want schools to turn out cosmologists, visionaries who wonder about the unexplained, who ponder the boundaries of knowledge without foreseeing a specific utilitarian outcome?

These are value questions and they are not simple. When parents hand their children over to a school, they hope the school will impart values with which they are in agreement. When taxpayers turn over their money to support education, they want education to produce citizens that are acceptable to their values.

The US is a heterogeneous culture. Not only is the country ethnically diverse, but religious and social values are all over the map. It’s no wonder a tempest surrounds the introduction of the Common Core curriculum. Common Core is an attempt to homogenize education.  In a land founded by rebels, this is a hard sell.