Connecticut’s Office of Early Childhood warned lawmakers on Wednesday that a plan proposed by the state’s largest teachers union to raise the minimum age of incoming kindergarteners would force thousands of lower-income families to pay for an additional year of daycare.
In a public hearing, Commissioner of the Office of Early Childhood Beth Bye told members of the Education Committee that requiring children to be five years old when they start kindergarten, rather than the current requirement that they turn five before January 1 of that school year, would mean that about 11,500 potential kindergarteners would not be able to begin school in the fall.
“Those parents would have to afford another year of childcare,” said Bye.
But teachers say that the age range of kindergarteners — which can span from four to almost seven — places the youngest of those children at a disadvantage both academically and socially.
Kate Dias, the president of the Connecticut Education Association, said at a press conference that the expectations for kindergarteners have evolved over the years to become less play-based and more academically demanding.
“You walk into a kindergarten classroom today and they’re doing writing prompts and they’re doing reading,” said Dias. “Our curriculum is really developmentally inappropriate for those four year olds.”
Holly Buhler, a teacher in the Clinton Public Schools who has taught pre-K and Kindergarten for 14 years, agreed.
“Children that are ‘ber’ babies (born in September, October, November, and December) are at a disadvantage to all other children in their grade every year because of [the] January 1 cut off,” Buhler wrote in her testimony to the legislature. “It is important to allow them more time to develop socially before being exposed to the rigorous curriculum of kindergarten.”
But Douglas Kaufman, a professor at UConn’s Neag School of Education who specializes in elementary education and has done research in Kindergarten classrooms, told CT Examiner that it’s difficult to generalize the experience a young child will have in kindergarten.
He said that teachers’ views also vary depending on the curriculum they have to teach.
“I’ve been in several kindergarten classrooms where they have pretty wide age ranges, and the children have performed brilliantly,” said Kaufman. “I could probably find a lot of kindergarten teachers who would say ‘We’re doing just fine.’ And we think it’s important that all children have the opportunity to engage in formal education as early as possible.”
Bye said that the large age range of kindergarteners that the teachers were describing was often the result of parents — most of them from the suburbs — deciding to hold children back a year. She said that she wasn’t opposed to the idea of raising the minimum age, but only if the state were to implement universal Pre-K. Otherwise, she said, the policy would hurt poorer families dependent on childcare.
“[Raising the age] mostly disadvantages lower-income families, who rely on that kindergarten, as we learned in the pandemic, both for childcare and, in some cases, families haven’t been able to afford preschool,” said Bye. She said that approximately 25 percent of the families whose children would not be allowed to enter kindergarten would be unable to afford childcare.
State Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, pointed out that Connecticut is one of only two states that place the cut-off date later than October 1. Cook said her own daughter, who started kindergarten at the age of four, said it was “the worst thing that ever happened to her.”
“There’s so many socio-emotional issues that happen later on. You can’t drive, you can’t hang out with your friends. You go to college – you can’t get medical attention without your parents being there,” said Cook.
Maia Vargas, a physical education teacher in Branford schools, echoed these concerns.
“It seems that when this issue comes up at the state level, the argument against it is always cost. Cost to the parents who will have to have their child in daycare for an extra year. What is the cost associated with sending a child who’s not ready for school into school at such a young age? Will they struggle to keep up academically? Will their behavior affect their academic performance and interfere with their peers’ ability to learn?” said Vargas. “Will there be extra peer pressure to become sexually active or try drugs and alcohol because they’re a full year or more younger than their school friends?”
But Kaufman said he is not aware of any research that would indicate negative outcomes for children who enter school early. In fact, he said, decades of research show that children who enter school early have better outcomes throughout school and later in life — and particularly children from low-income families.
“Good classrooms are responsive to individuals as well as groups,” said Kaufman. “You have to be attending, as a kindergarten teacher, to the developmental differences in children — to their individual social understanding, to a whole host of different factors. And if that’s done, I think that these children perform very well.”