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Are Today's Kindergartens Anti-Boy?

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Updated on Aug 5, 2013

There is a growing body of evidence showing that boys in the United States and Canada are less enthusiastic about school than boys were 20 or 30 years ago. In fact, there are an increasing number of male students who have developed a distaste for everything related to school. What’s changed in American education over the past 30 years?

In a word: kindergarten. Imagine walking into an American kindergarten 30 years ago. You would have seen kids doing lots of different things: singing, dancing, playing, fingerpainting, and maybe even a little formal instruction. Walk into almost any kindergarten today – particularly in public schools – and you will see something quite different. You will see kids sitting down, listening to the teacher, and learning how to read and write. As I argue in my book, Boys Adrift, the kindergarten of today looks very much like first grade looked 30 years ago. So is this acceleration of the early elementary curriculum a good thing or a bad thing?

I think it’s a bad thing.

The American school system used to be the envy of the world. But in recent years, American students have not been performing very well, when compared with kids from other nations. Some of that may have to do with the fact that other countries start children in school later than we do.

How could starting kids in school two years later explain their superior performance in international standardized assessments? Look no further than the brain. By starting school two years later, and teaching kids material when it is developmentally appropriate for them to learn, kids are less likely to hate school. If kids don't hate school, it's easier to get them to learn. If kids do hate school, as many American boys do, then the teacher is starting out with a major handicap before even stepping into the classroom.

Waiting until seven years of age to begin the formal, "rigorous," reading and writing curriculum of today's kindergarten might reduce or ameliorate a significant fraction of the problems we see with boys and school. For many boys, there's a huge difference in readiness to learn between when that boy is age 5 and when the same boy is age 7 - just as there's a huge difference in readiness for a girl who's 3 years old and the same girl at age 5. Regions of the brain develop in a different sequence and tempo in girls compared to boys. As a result, most five-year-old girls are better able to adapt to the rigorous academic character of kindergarten than five-year-old boys are.

Kindergarten Red Shirts

Many parents understand intuitively that the accelerated pace of the 21st-century American kindergarten is not a good match for their 5-year-old son. Particularly in affluent neighborhoods, it's become common for parents to enroll their son in kindergarten one year later than the district would normally enroll that child. In affluent districts, it's not unusual to find that half the boys, or more, are enrolled in kindergarten at age 6 rather than at age 5; in low-income neighborhoods, on the other hand, typically fewer than 3 percent of boys will be held back. One reason that boys from low-income neighborhoods are doing so much worse may be simply that the boys from more affluent neighborhoods are starting school at a later age.

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