Are there Benefits to Children Starting School Earlier?

September 21, 2017
teacher reading book to children sitting on carpet.

NPR’s John Ydstie reports on a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that says kids who start school at an older age perform better than their younger classmates perform and are more likely to graduate from college. This study says that on average, “Demographically similar September-born children performed better than younger August-born students, all through their academic careers.” Children who turn five prior to the September cutoff date that most school districts have are considered “younger” because they can enter Kindergarten when the school year starts. Children who turn five after the September cutoff date are considered “older” because they have to wait and enter kindergarten the following school year.  For example, my daughter turned five in November, so she had to wait until the following August to enroll in Kindergarten.  My son on the other hand, turned five at the end of July, so he was able to enroll that fall.

The study focused on a small demographic of children from Florida that were born before the September 1 registration deadline for starting kindergarten. With this cutoff date, the youngest children would have been born in August and the oldest children would have been born in September of the prior year. There has been prior research done that revealed that the older children do better in school, but it was never tracked beyond the first few years of school. 

With this new study, David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, found that this academic pattern continued into college. Figlio told NPR that that if you look at test scores, the achievement gap could be equivalent to about 40 points on the 1600-point SAT. Figlio also found that the age a child starts school could also affect college attendance and graduation rates. This study found that with middle class families, the older kids born in September were 2.6 percentage points more likely to go to college and 2.6 percentage points more likely to graduate from an elite university.

One of the most surprising findings from this study was that even in high-income families; the achievement gap is not easily closed between children born in August and September. Figlio, says “that even with these higher-income families, there was a gap in achievement between siblings who started school younger and those who started when they were older.” This was surprising to Figlio because higher-income families have the resources needed to help close the gap between siblings.

Not all families are aware of what the “achievement gap” is and what it means to close it. The Illinois Edition of PBS LearningMedia has several resources that can help us better understand what that means. Closing the Opportunity Gap at Neah Bay Elementary is a video that is designed to help educators and families explore the characteristics of a school that is successfully closing the opportunity gap for its students.

While this is a small study conducted in a specific area, the findings may resonate with some of us. Multiple discussions and studies examine the impact of enrolling children in school at younger ages. Figlio believes that there is not an exact solution to their findings but rather it is the schools responsibility to look for solutions. Figlio told NPR that there are various things that schools can do to help address this problem. In my personal opinion, the schools cannot do this alone.  Closing the achievement gap for many students is going to require parents to do things at home and the schools to continue to evaluate and make changes.