February 19, 2018

The problem with sorting by age

Sorting kids into grades by age is natural in school, and maybe even necessary, right? Malcolm Gladwell author of Outliers: The Story of Success claims that this is just plain wrong. In fact, he claims that age sorting like this – no matter where it shows up – robs children of opportunities. Consider, for example, the current roster of the Portland’s junior hockey team the Winter Hawks. Of the 16 players on the roster, only four have birthdays in the last half of the year. That number should be eight, or about half the players. What’s happening here? Why are so many of the players born in the first half of the year? Gladwell argues that it’s age sorting in action.Most of the players on the Winter Hawks roster got their start in the Canadian junior hockey system and the cutoff date for entry in Canadian junior hockey is January 1. If you happen to born on December 31st, you can start playing at a younger age. That’s good, right? Except that If you happen to be born on Jaunary 2,  you wait a year and you start you start your hockey career older, bigger, and stronger than kids born later in the year. You’re more likely to be identified for elite leagues, longer seasons, and better coaching. Just by having a birthday AFTER the cut off day, you’ve got a built-in advantage.

And guess what? That advantage doesn’t disappear over time. Gladwell reports that the vast majority of NHL players are born in the first half of the year, meaning that those that got the head start at the beginning due to their early birthdays build onto that advantage over time. Psychologists call this the “Matthew Effect”. Those who start with an early advantage age are handed more advantages over time, one advantage piling on top of another.  By the time you reach an age to compete for a spot in the NHL, an early birthday really matters. If you have a birthday in, say, October, your hockey career is almost as good as over before it begins.

And guess what else? This effect isn’t limited to hockey. It shows up wherever kids are sorted into groups according to an artificial cut off date. In the case of Canadian junior hockey, that date is January 1. In American schools, the date is September 1. Kids born shortly after that date in general post better standardized test scores over time and are over represented in colleges and universities. The Matthew effect still applies. Kids who are older in first grade – even by just a few months – are more likely to be identified for special attention, advanced reading groups, and so on. Over time, those advantages start to pile up. Far from being an advantage, being the youngest kid in the class actually constitutes a small but significant disadvantage.

So what can we do to level the playing field and give kids a chance to achieve according to their abilities and not according to their birthdays? Gladwell’s solution might seem revolutionary to some but it’s old news here in Corbett – stop sorting kids according to a cut off date. “Elementary and middle schools” Gladwell writes,  “could put the January through April-born kids into one class, the May through August in another class, and those born in September through December in the third class.” In order to reduce the sorting effect, Gladwell suggests creating three classes per “grade” according to birth month.

It’s an interesting idea, although impractical in Corbett. Our solution is better: avoid sorting kids at all, except into three broad categories – primary, elementary, and middle. It’s an approach used in Denmark, a country whose students consistently score at or near the top of the pile in various international measures of academic performance, and it’s the approach used here in Corbett to great effect. Multi aging has financial advantages in a small school, but around here, it’s an issue of equity and potential. The Corbett School is absolutely devoted to eliminating barriers imposed by sorting, whether it’s sorting by grade level or sorting imposed by strongly limiting entry into AP classes. Sorting hurts kids and limits potential. It’s wrong, and it’s something we just won’t do.

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