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
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Creative Writing and the Brain

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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.

Quality Schools for All

(Adapted from another site; originally published in 2012)

It’s natural to want the best for our children. So, when the New York Times runs articles about school zoning in New York City, I am somewhat sympathetic to parents who insist that their children (and therefore their neighborhoods) be included in the most desirable districts. At the same time, I am aghast at the construct of these arguments. Seemingly absent from the discussion is an awareness that it is intrinsically immoral to splice neighborhoods so that real estate values and social distinctions are reinforced.

An oft-cited rationale for gerrymandered school districts is that the middle class will stay only if its children are allowed to attend “good” public schools. Implicit in this rationale are a number of assumptions: there are not enough good schools in the system to go around; real estate values are directly related to school values; and school zoning gives the middle class some control (through their political agents) over the quality of education available to their children.

I would have little grounds for challenging these arguments if the schools in question were private and the citizens who used the private schools paid taxes into a general fund for public education. But the coveted schools are not private; they are publicly funded. The funds are not derived from neighborhoods; they are derived from city, state and federal governments.

If equity were the principle that governed school attendance, then there would not be a system which locked children into “good” and “bad” districts. Privileged parents would not be able to secure their children quality education by moving into a good district; underprivileged parents would not be forced to send their children into crime-ridden, under-performing schools.

By law, every child is entitled to free public education. The education is free in the sense that no tuition is charged, but it is not truly “free” education. Children are often not free to attend any school, but are strictly confined to a neighborhood school. In a free system, a child would be given school choice (not intended here as a euphemism for charter schools); the free market would prevail. In that case, children would presumably flee from “bad” public schools and swamp “good” public schools.

As it is, passions run high when middle class parents are faced with the prospect of losing a place in a “good” school. What does it say about some schools that parents argue so forcefully to keep their children out? It’s a civic disgrace that such discussions continue, year after year. Generation after generation parents are forced to operate in a system of rationing, with winners and losers.

Why can’t everyone be a winner?

There will always be distinctions of class and money between people. Schools are the one place where society can smooth some of those distinctions, can level the playing field so every child has a chance at a bright future. The current educational system in New York, and many cities, does not advance this goal. As long as the expectations of an elite middle class are subsidized by public funds, social and economic stratification will be reinforced, not mitigated.

The antiquated and iniquitous school districting model should be abolished. Children, and parents, should be allowed to vote with their feet. As cities adjusts to this new dynamic, perhaps the motivation will arise to make all schools “good”, instead of just those few schools that serve the  middle class elite.