Compulsory Education At Age 8

Today I attended an ABA Roundtable session on children at risk. The discussion was led by Karen Mathis, president of the association. One of the most remarkable facts that surfaced during this conversation was that, each year, 3000 kids don’t start in the Philadelphia school system until age 8. Apparently only Pennsylvania, and one other state, begin compulsory education at such a late date. As one can imagine, many of these 8 year olds start first grade at a huge disadvantage compared to kids who entered school at age 3 or 4. While these aged youth may be lagging educationally, they’re physically out of place as well. Compared to the 5 and 6 year olds, the older children are sometimes massive. And that physical gap explodes around the time these children are in 6th grade (at age 14.) As a result of the behavioral difficulties that follow, many kids in this cohort drop out – at age 16 or 17- while they’re still in middle school.

I found this state of affairs both surprising and sad. With all the other challenges we have focusing kids on education, who knew that we were failing at this most fundamental level: the minimum age for compulsory education?

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7 Responses

  1. Rick Swedloff says:

    Was there any discussion of the demographics of the cohort? Are these children more likely to live in rural or urban areas? Educational attainment of parents? Income level?

  2. Deven Desai says:

    Dan, your points about the gaps is well taken. Although the physical differences are interesting, I think the literacy problems are more important. I am a bit biased because I worked a little with Jumpstart for Young Children They focus on literacy for three to five year old kids.

    One thing they note is that “the best predictor of whether a 10th grader is reading at grade level is actually whether or not that child knew his alphabet at the age of 5. Extensive cognitive and neurological research indicates that the parts of the human brain most important for learning and developing cognitive skills are most active at an early age.”

    They have a page of studies that show links between early education and reduced need for later spending on “special education, welfare assistance, and criminal activity.” The links page is at

    By the way I doubt you are saying early literacy is not important, I just wanted to point to other potential problems with starting education so late.

  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    There have been several studies in California showing that attending pre-school is a predictor of later educational achievements, as well as correlated to juvenile delinquency rates (those who attend are less likely to later join gangs, etc.; no, correlation is not equal to causation, but it suggests further research). Such pre-school education is not necessarily geared to the ‘three Rs,’ indeed, I suspect the fact that the children experience a Confucian-like training in heart, body and mind at this early age, including acquiring the skills of cooperative behavior and basic conflict resolution of sorts, is particularly telling (assuming a decent pre-school of course)….

  4. Ann Remus says:

    The comment re literacy is right on. Approximately 20% of children learn to read largely on their own if just exposed to books. A large group in the middle of a bell shaped graph will learn to read well with a good reading program. But large studies around the country have shown that 10-15% of children require early, explicit work in order to learn to read, and the earlier that work, the more effective. If schools are able to evaluate youngsters at four or five, it is possible to retrain a child’s brain and prevent what otherwise might have become a persistent problem. If the schools do not see some children until they are eight, that’s a problem.

    And I can’t imagine an eight year old being part of a first grade class – I hope that many of these children have had home school experiences that allow them to test into second grade. If the child is eight and on a learning par with a six year old, that points to problems that will only escalate.

    Summary: it’s a bad law that is archaic, not responding to large bodies of research such as from the National Institutes of Health. (See, for example, Reid Lyon – many articles on the web)

  5. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    Just curious: is ‘retrain[ing] a child’s brain’ equivalent to retraining a child’s mind?

    I worry that an emphasis on literacy may be purchased at the price of learning the arts (or, even more fundamentally, time devoted to play). Is this concern unwarranted? Which is pehaps simply to say that learning to read might best be accomplished alongside a training in the arts (music, dance, etc.). Much scientific evidence of late attesting to the benefits of this, but both classical Chinese worldviews (especially the Confucian) and Plato (of The Laws) well knew the benefits of such training. Cf., for instance, the following from my Confucianism glossary guide entry on wen (the arts):

    wen: originally, line or pattern; to inscribe, to embellish; the arts or culture; generally speaking, wen makes reference to the patterned regularity or symmetry, harmony and beauty found in (the tao/dao of) t’ien (Heaven), in (the tao of) the natural world, and (the tao of) a properly humane culture. With regard to t’ien and the natural world one might say, by way of illustration, that wen is evidenced in the physical laws (or normative regularities) of nature (cf. Anthony Zee’s Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics, 1999), or the mathematical and aesthetic elegance of the Golden Ratio—Phi—throughout human history (see Mario Livio’s The Golden Ratio, 2002). For Confucius, wen entailed, at the very least, the ‘six arts,’ namely, rites, music, archery, charioteering, mathematics and calligraphy. Of course, given Confucius’ commitment to the Five Classics, we can assume poetry and dance were likewise essential. In 7.6 Confucius says, ‘Set your sights on the way (tao), sustain yourself with virtue (te), lean upon benevolence (jenren), and sojourn in the arts (wen).’ Confucius’ position on the role of tradition in an appreciation of the arts is gleaned from 3.14: ‘The Chou [Zhou] dynasty looked back to the Hsia [Xia] and the Shang dynasties. Such a wealth of culture! I follow the Chou [Zhou].’ In the Book of Rites (one of the Five Classics) we are reminded that ‘the perfection of virtue is primary, and the perfection of art follows afterward.’ Put differently, the arts are enlisted in the Confucian project of moral and spiritual self-cultivation (perfectibilist growth and education). They serve to integrally and holistically discipline or train the body (ti) and heart-mind (hsin²) of the would-be chün tzu. As Edward Slingerland reminds us, ‘music was considered by the early Confucians to be one of the most powerful tools for shaping the emotions, and the metaphor of musical perfection also served for Confucius as a metaphor for the perfected state.’ Xunzi understood wen as essential to harnessing or disciplining the ‘natural and irrepressible’ emotions that ‘burst forth in words, poems, songs, and dances’ (Goldin):

    There is a danger, however, that this effusion of passion may overstep its proper bounds by violating the principles of the Way, and what began as a natural human tendency may metamorphose into a source of chaos. But the Sage Kings took steps to address just that problem: they established rituals of artistic expression, ensuring that poems and song conform to the Way. For when the people of a state sing and hear proper music, they are influenced by its power to bring themselves in line with the Way as well (Goldin).

    Confucius and his followers were well known for reciting the three hundred odes, playing them on strings while singing and dancing to them. His devotion to the Odes exemplifies his understanding of wen. The Odes had variegated epistemic, political, ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and cultural functions in ancient China, only some of which we’ll mention here (see the excellent treatment in Nylan’s The Five ‘Confucian’ Classics, 2001). Not surprisingly, ‘all traditions portray the Odes’ vital importance as a cultural repository of eminent utility and as a teaching tool for the social graces’ (Nylan). The Odes could arouse the emotions of others, allow for the acute perception of others’ feelings, enhance a fraternal sense of community, ‘diplomatically’ express grievances or critiques so as not to offend or humiliate their targets, serve as a display of character and erudition. Formally or stylistically speaking, the inherent ambiguity and the multivalence of the odes allowed songmakers and audience alike to thrill to witty displays of learning,imparting a single meaning to lines quoted with a specific context. In effect, then, an ingenious, flexible, yet guided response, reaching ever higher levels of insight, became both the prerequisite for and

    the end product of Odes’ learning (Nylan).

    We might see the Confucian project of self-cultivation itself in aesthetic, or more broadly, artistic terms, as Hall and Ames did in Thinking Through Confucius (1987) and Nylan does here:

    Moral self-cultivation is itself a kind of exquisite taste: the truly cultivated have learned to delight in the moral Way and to

    appreciate the beauty and utility of ritual. Such sophisticated powers of discrimination keep them on the path of full humanity (jen), painstakingly refining their initial impulses toward sympathetic understanding, like the jade cutter who cuts and files, chisels and polishes the precious material. People who know enough to take pleasure in the Way find that the end products of their efforts, their lives or their jades, have become exquisite works of art (Nylan). Little noticed, the Confucian conception of wen has much in common with the Platonic if not classical Greek understanding of the role of music and dance in paideia (moral education; aretē, or the moral habituation to virtue; education directed toward ‘the Beauty and the Good;’): ‘As an instrument of paideia, ritual dancing, in which the customs of the group are encoded, implied the acquisition of moral virtues and a sense of civic responsibility, of mature allegiance to the community, an espousal of its traditions and virtues’ (Steven H. Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion, Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). For Plato, music and dance were, in Lonsdale’s words, ‘the first and fundamental steps of education,’ constituting a form of ‘unwritten laws’ that complement or sustain the written laws of the polis. These unwritten laws might helpfully be identified as a subset of Confucian li. Substitute heart-mind (hsin²) for ‘soul’ in the following and the identification is transparent: Plato believed music and dance contributed to moral education and civic virtue, in other words, to ends motivated by an intimate knowledge of the Good, ‘because rhythm and harmony penetrate most easily into the soul and influence it most strongly, bringing with it decorum and making those who are correctly trained well-behaved’ (Lonsdale). Music and dance in ancient Greece, like the composition and performance of the odes in classical China, ‘made moral learning at once the most natural and so most delightful of all human activities—far more than a polite accomplishment, a significant source of gratification [or, in Greek terms, eudaimonia]’ (Nylan).

  6. Matt says:

    Kids start school at 3 or 4? That seems pretty sad to me, too. Kids should get to play and have fun for a while.

  7. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Perhaps we can find common ground if we agree to let these young ones play and have fun…at school. It does seem rather important where kids are playing after all, as there are not a few home and other environments that are not fit for fun and play. Our children seem to have flourished in pre-school day care (schools of a kind) that was, for the most part (i.e., when they weren’t taking naps), about fun and play.