I recently listened to the Revisionist History podcast episode Outliers, Revisited. In the episode, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the privilege that athletes and students have based on their birth dates. The premise is that athletes/students who have the benefit of being older based on an arbitrary enrollment date typically are more successful than other kids on the other side of the cutoff date.
As a school leader, I’ve had many conversations with parents of children who were born right on the school enrollment cutoff date. My advice is always to wait a year to enroll the child, because I’ve seen younger students (by relative age) struggle when entering the classroom. Without citing research, I can speak to a number of cases where students entered school having just made the enrollment date and have struggled for years to come. The opposite may be true as well, but I feel like all of the anecdotal examples point to younger students struggling to adjust.
While Gladwell tries to apply the situation equally to athletes and students, he asks whether age is a privilege that helps students get into gifted and talented programs, and provides other such benefits. It may, but more research is required. While we don’t have conclusive evidence, we need to recognize a red flag when we see one.
We must carefully consider how we view age in education. We are far past the point of making sure that all of the five year olds are grouped together. We know that kids hit milestones at different times and have different growth rates. We might notice differences between boys and girls maturity rates. We might notice differences for a kid born in June versus a kid born in October. We need to think critically about this.
The most interesting idea suggested in the episode is when Gladwell poses testing kids at different times of the year based on their relative age. This is interesting because it questions our current system of standardized testing. Should we assume that all third grade students that we test in the Spring of each school year are on a level playing field?
We know that this is categorically false.
And yet, we will still test all of our third grade students using the same test at the same time.
We need to recognize that we can do better. Or at the very least, consider the shortfalls in our current system.
What’s age got to do with it?
A lot actually.