Monday, March 5, 2012

Utah Schools: Self-Induced Cut-Off Date Disaster?



In reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, I found one of the chapters deals with the intriguing subject of self induced failure.  The chapter illustrated the effect that arbitrary cut-off dates have on students and their future performance.

The book specifically gives an example of Hockey players in Canada.  While at a major league championship, the roster for the players was printed on the back of one of the programs for the event.  A curious fact was found on that sheet: the majority of players were born in January and none were born in December.  Why could that be?

Well, as it turns out, the Canada hockey league cut off date is January 1.  Since grooming starts early in childhood for the sport, the kids with the best skills and advantage get picked for more advanced training year after year.  That training advantage adds up over time.

Unfortunately for the kids born in December, they are 11 months younger and smaller than their January-born counterparts.  That maturity difference is enough at a young age to give the kids born closest to the cut-off date the greatest advantage.

This example got me thinking about our school system here in Utah.  We see this cut-off phenomena in sports but is it present in academic performance as well?  As it turns out, it is!

Here is a chart from a captivating Oxford study showing the academic performance advantage of the oldest kids in a grade versus their younger cohorts:

 
The "RF" and "IV" represent slightly different ways of defining the age of students.  Regardless of how they are defined, and across international boundaries, you can see that the oldest students have a large advantage over their younger cohorts in both the forth grade and 8th grade. 

If this were just true for grade school and not higher education or the workplace, this fact would be of little importance.  But alas, the study shows that indeed this advantage does telegraph into later stages of life as well.   Here is an excerpt regarding college enrollment in the United States:

Individuals born in the first assigned relative month are underrepresented in the pre-university stream (as measured by taking the SAT or ACT) by 7.7 percent. Further, individuals born in the first relative month are underrepresented in accredited four-year college/universities enrollments by 11.6 percent.
So what is to be done?  First, I would ask local school districts to conduct a study, perhaps in conjunction with a local university, to determine how this age advantage is affecting local school districts.  Then, I would recommend studying some variations on the school schedule and class groupings to address the issue.  Perhaps school districts could then implement a plan that best serves their immediate community.  

Hopefully, achievement in school and the workplace can be left to the student's own merit rather than by an inflexible cut-off date that defines success by an accident of birth.

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