Academic Exchange Quarterly  Fall 2012 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 16, Issue 3

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Teacher Candidate Age at School Entry


Scott Robinson, UH Manoa, HI


Robinson, Ph.D., is Associate Specialist in the College of Education.



The paper explores the birthdate and age at elementary school entry of candidates in an initial licensure teacher education program. The null hypothesis that the candidates’ age at school entry and their cohort affiliation does not differ significantly is the basis for this study. A Chi-Squared Test for Independence results in rejecting the null hypothesis. An implication is the age of elementary school entry and subsequent birthdate effects can be used to spark critical reflections and dialogue about prior and ongoing K-12 classroom experiences.



In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell (2008) suggests there is a positive correlation between birthdate and competitiveness of male Canadian hockey players at both junior and professional levels. With a January 1 league entry cutoff date, the most competitive players are those with birthdates during the first few months of the calendar year as compared to those born later in the same year. In this example, a player’s age when entering junior leagues results in a birthdate effect that can be used to predict who will make it to the professional leagues. The birthdate effect has been observed in other sports like soccer as slightly older players tend to be more competitive than their younger peers (Williams, 2010). This paper extrapolates the birthdate effect from the world of sports to the field of education by searching for patterns among the birthdates of graduate students enrolled in a teacher preparation program.


Age at school entry is based on a child’s birthdate as well as the school’s cutoff date for entry into kindergarten. Consequently, the age at which children begin elementary school may vary by as little as a few days or as much as a year. This means that a child entering kindergarten whose birthdate falls just after the school admission cutoff date would start school with an advantage of having lived for up to 20% longer than his or her youngest peers. This degree of age difference can lead to a wide variation among students who share the classroom in terms of their “health and physical development, emotional well-being and social competence, approaches to learning, communicative skills, and cognition and general knowledge” (Saluja, Scott-Little, & Clifford, 2000, pp. 2-3). School entry age advantages relatively older children in reading, writing, mathematics, and science in the primary grades according to Bell and Daniels (1990). Bedard and Dhuey (2006) add that this advantage may extend into secondary school years and beyond. The younger relative age of children entering school is correlated with the number of students classified with learning disabilities (Dhuey & Lipsomb, 2010). Kinard and Reinherz (1986) note that gender may exacerbate the birthdate effect with girls being advantaged due to their more advanced cognitive and emotional development at younger ages. Additionally, age at school entry has been linked to the development of leadership skills in high school (Dhuey & Lipscomb, 2008). Academic content knowledge and process skills, emotional development (Gredler, 1980), and leadership skills are not only influenced by a child’s relative age to his or her peers but are recognized as essential traits of effective teachers (Munby, Russell, & Martin, 2001; Trent, 2010).


If school entry age may lead to unintended and long-term academic, emotional, and social advantages for some, can this effect be identified and utilized by teacher educators intent on offering equitable and just teacher preparation programs? This study examines this overarching question by seeking answers to the following: a) Are there significant differences between the school entry age and program affiliation of teacher candidates in a graduate-level, initial licensure program? b) What might relate to the difference if the null hypothesis is rejected and birthdate and program affiliation are found to be dependent? And c) why does this matter for teacher educators?   


Methodology & Methods

Birthdates consist of ordinal data, so nonparametric analysis is employed in the form of the Chi-Square Test for Independence. Wiersma and Jurs note “the most commonly used sampling distribution for statistics generated by nonparametric analysis is the chi-square distribution” (2005, p. 391). A Chi-square contingency table illustrates the test for independence when comparing two variables for a single population. In this case, the population consists of teacher candidates simultaneously pursuing teacher licensure and a graduate degree at a university in Hawaii. One group of teacher candidates is affiliated with Teach for America and the other group is assigned to professional development schools during the two-year program. The variables are program affiliation and school entry age. The Chi-Square contingency table is comprised of rows designating program affiliation and columns containing school entry age based on three month birthdate intervals.


To determine school entry age, the school entry cutoff date needs to be taken into account. Hawaii has a public school entry cutoff date of December 31. This means that children in Hawaii enter kindergarten during the calendar year in which they turn five years of age. Most of the professional development school teacher candidates in the sample population completed K-12 schooling in Hawaii. The majority of the Teach for America candidates attended school on the US mainland. The states on the US mainland have a range of school entry cutoff dates with most in the fall of the year. For example, 26 states have school entry cutoff dates during the month of September (Saluja, Scott-Little, & Clifford, 2000). For the purpose of this study, September 30 is designated as the school entry cutoff date for the Teach for America candidates. This is the assumed average cutoff date for this group since the names and locations of the elementary schools where they began school were unavailable. Birthdates are noted by three month intervals. Table ONE shows the relative school entry age based on the birthdates of the teacher candidates with a three month adjustment for the Teach for America candidate due to their three month earlier school entry cutoff date.

The sample for this study consists of graduate teacher candidates admitted to a two-year initial licensure teaching program between 2006 and 2009. Student names are not used in the paper and birthdates are reported by three month intervals to ensure that individual teacher candidates are unidentifiable. The sample population is comprised of four Teach for America cohorts (n=103) and six professional development school cohorts (n=106) for a total population of N=209. Cohorts range in size from 15 to 38 with mean size of 20.9 and median and mode of 19. Over half, or 57%, of the Teacher for America candidates are female as compared to the professional development school candidates with females outnumbering males 3:1. The average age of the Teacher for America candidates when they entered the teacher education program is approximately 23 years 5 months with the average age of males at 23 years 2 months and females at 23 years 6 months. The average age of the candidates in the professional development school cohorts is 26 years 4 months with males somewhat older (28 years 11 months) than females (25 years 10 months). In sum, the professional development school teacher candidates are nearly three years older and more likely to be female than their Teach for America counterparts.


Teach for America candidates are full-time teachers without a teaching license as they complete the two-year master’s degree program. These candidates are recruited by the Teach for America organization and hired to teach in hard-to-staff public schools. Nearly all of these candidates pursue secondary content area licensure in English, mathematics, science, or social studies. Professional development school candidates complete their first year as participant observers in K-12 schools for two days a week. During the second year, they student teach for five days a week in a cooperating teacher’s classroom for the fall semester, and they conduct teaching internships in their own classroom during the spring semester. Some of the professional development candidates complete their K-12 mentored experiences in high poverty public schools while others are located in more affluent schools.  These teacher candidates seek either elementary licensure or secondary content area licensure in English, mathematics, science, or social studies. All of the teacher candidates, including those in Teach for America and professional practice school cohorts, are enrolled in the same two-year graduate program resulting in a master’s degree in education and in an endorsement for teacher licensure. Teacher educators assign the candidates into a cohort based on their program affiliation and year of admission. Candidates attend twice weekly seminars with their assigned cohort throughout the two-year program.  



The Contingency Table below (Table TWO) contains the teacher candidate relative age at school entry based on birthdate frequencies (by three month intervals) and chi-square values for Teach for America and professional development school teacher candidates.  

The results of chi-squared test for independence were:

Sum Chi-Square = 6.41

df = (r-1)(c-1) = (2-1)(4-1) = (1)(3) = 3

Chi-Square (critical value) for alpha is 6.25 at p = .10 .


6.41>6.25; Sum Chi-Square>Chi-Square (critical value). Significant difference, p < .10 . There is a significant difference and the variables are considered to be dependent.


Research Questions

Are there significant differences between the school entry age and program affiliation of teacher candidates in a graduate-level, initial licensure program?

The results of this study suggest that the school entry age of the Teach for America and professional development school candidates varies significantly (p< .10). Therefore, the age at school entry and the teacher preparation program affiliation may not be independent variables in the population. Although non parametric statistical measures like the Chi-Squared Test for Independence are not meant to serve as powerful predictors of the population, results do suggest the Teach for America candidates were more likely to be younger than their peers during their K-12 schooling as compared to the candidates enrolled in the professional practice school cohorts.


What might relate to the difference if the null hypothesis is rejected and the variables are found to be dependent?

The Teach for America candidates were high academic achievers and many of them were able to excel in spite of being younger than their K-12 grade-level peers. The majority of the Teach for America candidates earned top grades (cumulative GPA 3.6 or higher) as undergraduates at elite colleges and universities, and they were selected from a large pool of highly qualified applicants by the Teach for America organization (Labaree, 2010). Age at school entry may have resulted in a birthdate effect for these candidates and the professional development school candidates, yet it is likely that other biological, psychological, and social-cultural factors such as sex, race, gender, ethnicity, birth order, family income, family educational histories and expectations, and available jobs for graduating college seniors may have also affected their academic performance and occupational goals. For example, many of the Teach for America candidates may consider their two-year teaching and master’s degree program as a way to help youngsters in hard-to-staff schools and to build their own academic credentials for future careers. Although it is beyond the scope of this paper, a potential topic for further investigation would be examining relationships between teacher candidate occupational goals and age at school entry.


The professional development school candidates were more likely to be female and older than their K-12 grade-level peers as compared to the Teach for America candidates. The professional development school candidates may have developed greater communication skills and emotional maturity since a larger percentage of them were female as compared to the Teach for America candidates. Duey and Lipscomb (2008) suggest that the oldest students amongst their peers are most likely to take on leadership positions in high school. Additionally, the professional development school candidates were about three years older than the Teach for America candidates in the teacher preparation program. This older age in the graduate program would increase the chances that the professional development school candidates were gainfully employed after finishing their undergraduate degrees. The younger average age of the Teach for America candidates at the time of graduate school admission implies that they did not have time for sustained post-undergraduate employment to acquire leadership skills beyond the context of school experiences or school-sponsored internships. Rather than bring leadership experience into secondary school classrooms as non-licensed teachers, they gained leadership experience through their full-time teaching while they were enrolled in the teacher education program. The professional development school candidates were more likely to enter the teacher education program with some leadership experience based on their post undergraduate employment.


Another trend is that the professional development school cohorts were more likely to contain candidates with birthdates more evenly dispersed throughout the year. This could lead to more balance in the areas of academic knowledge, emotional stability, social competency, and leadership skills based on the potential impact of the birthdate effect upon them.     


Why does this matter for teacher educators?   

Understanding the impact of teacher candidate birthdate and the resulting school entry age may help teacher educators tailor the education curricula to the individual needs of teacher candidates. Below are three general areas for consideration that are meant not to judge candidate qualifications for graduate school admission but to generate insights into their educational backgrounds and professional needs so the teacher education curricula can foster meaningful growth.  


First, during the admission process, applicants could be asked to identify their birthdates as well their ages at school entry. Then, teacher candidates could be asked to recall classroom and school episodes that influenced their academic accomplishments, emotional and social growth, and leadership skills. This reflection and analysis could be accomplished through essay writing prompts on admission applications and/or discussions during intake interviews. It would also be useful to ask teacher candidates about their learning and leadership beyond the context of K-12 schooling including postsecondary and informal educational experiences. Candidates could be asked to propose reasons why they did or did not seek leadership positions, what they learned from their leadership experiences, and what they might do differently in similar contexts today. The goal of this reflection and analysis is to promote mindful introspection that could serve as referents for future actions in their K-12 teaching and in their cohort seminars.


Second, it may be useful to include age at school entry as a factor for consideration when assigning candidates into cohorts after they have been admitted to the teacher education program. Combining candidates with alternative school entry ages into the same cohort may help balance the cohort enrollment so members may more likely supplement one another in the area of academic knowledge, emotional regulation, social competencies, and leadership. One way to address this goal would be to combine Teach for America and professional practice school candidates in the same cohort since candidates from these two affiliated programs may bring alternative insights to a cohort based on their age at school entry and the resulting impact of the birthdate effect as well as other factors noted earlier in this paper. Although these candidates may have differing K-12 teaching responsibilities, they may find common ground by learning from one another during college seminars and classes. For example, professional development school candidates changing careers to become teachers may share insights on how to resolve workplace problems when communicating with others in the school setting. The Teach for America candidates may be able to talk about their methods for constructing academic knowledge and for generating positive dispositions in the areas of motivation and perseverance in overcoming academic challenges.


Third, insights gained through an age at school entry background check could be used to differentiate teacher education curricula and instruction to assist individual candidates in maximizing their acquisition of essential knowledge, skills, and dispositions for effective teaching. The emerging curricula would promote a greater degree of ownership among teacher candidates as they proposed and enacted methodologies and methods to address their perceived needs in the areas of academic knowledge, emotional regulation, social skills, communication effectiveness, and leadership in their teaching and other school-based field experiences. This form of problem identification and resolution could be facilitated through perceptions generated from other cohort members in seminars. The resulting reflections and collaborative discussions premised on factors originally associated with age at school entry would not only identify personal issues and problems to be resolved by candidates but also model collaborative problem solving methodologies premised on democratic participation of cohort members. These rich conversations would invite personal reflections, expose individual vulnerabilities, build bonds of trust, and promote democratic discourse through methods constructed by the cohort members themselves.   



Age at school entry ought to be addressed not only by elementary school teachers who teach young children but also by teacher educators who prepare candidates for K-12 teaching. Although school entry age may not be the primary factor affecting cognitive, social, and emotional growth and development, it may nonetheless contribute to the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that teacher candidates bring to their teacher education programs. Understanding the effects of age at school entry is essential in addressing unintended educational inequalities that may have impeded the development of some teacher candidates in both Teach for America and professional practice school cohorts.   


In the current education system, it would be problematic to register only those students born on the same day into the same classroom. So it remains for K-12 teachers to ensure that all students in a given classroom have opportunities to develop their academic knowledge, social skills, emotional stability, and leadership proficiencies within supportive environments where members value the contributions of others regardless of their age at school entry or other personal traits and characteristics. The junior and professional hockey leagues may encourage the most promising junior players and celebrate the Stanley Cup champions; however, all teachers must strive to learn and communicate academic knowledge and social skills in emotionally safe classrooms so they and their students may thrive regardless of their ages at school entry.   



A version of this paper was co-presented with Marcene Ogawa at the annual conference of the Hawai’i Educational Research Association, Honolulu, HI on February 4, 2012.



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