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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Birthdate key for kids’ success

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: May 15, 2022, 6:02am

On Thursday, Jimmy Butler scored 32 points as the Miami Heat eliminated the Philadelphia 76ers from the NBA playoffs.

Butler is 6-foot-7, a gifted athlete and fierce competitor and great defensive player in addition to his offensive prowess. The fact that he is an NBA star would not surprise anybody who saw him walking down the sidewalk in street clothes.

But there is an additional, invisible factor that might or might not contribute to Butler’s success as a professional basketball player. And believe it or not, this factor is relevant to discussions about the Highly Capable Program in Vancouver Public Schools.

The Highly Capable Program is the district’s gifted-and-talented program, designed to provide more a more challenging curriculum for accomplished students. It has been in the news recently as district officials consider changes.

Currently, eligible elementary students may enroll in one of two schools to participate in a self-contained program where they have class alongside other Highly Capable students. Or students may attend their neighborhood school and study an advanced curriculum.

A proposed change would do away with the self-contained model beginning this fall. A program dispersing Highly Capable services throughout the district would be adopted.

Some school board members, parents and teachers are confused by the proposal, according to reporting in The Columbian. If more clarity is required, there might not be time to implement vast changes to the program before the fall, but we’ll leave that to people who have a broader understanding of the issue.

Instead, we’re going to talk about Jimmy Butler. And Malcolm Gladwell. And how U.S. education can best serve students.

Butler, you see, was born in September of 1989. This is not unusual; some 358,000 babies were born in the United States that month, and likely none of them grew up to be as successful in basketball. But as Gladwell points out in his book “Outliers,” the timing of Butler’s birth may have been as important as his height, quickness and fortitude.

The cutoff for most youth programs, including school, is Sept. 1 in the United States. Butler was always among the oldest students in his class or youth program. By the time he reached the NBA, that didn’t matter; but it did matter while Butler was growing up.

When he was 9 or 10 or 11 or whenever teams started being divided by ability level, he was nine or 10 or 11 months older than others in his age group.

Gladwell, being a Canadian, looks at junior hockey for an example of how relative age can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “What happens when a player gets chosen for an (elite) squad? He gets better coaching, and his teammates are better, and he plays 50 or 75 games a season instead of 20 games a season like those left behind in the ‘house’ league, and he practices twice as much … In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of 13 or 14, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better.”

By the way, among the final eight teams in the playoffs — the best teams with the best players in the NBA, one of the most exclusive clubs in the United States — more American-born players have birthdays in September than any other month.

All of this seems relevant to American education, a system in which some children start kindergarten at the age of 71 months while their youngest classmates are 60 months. That represents a huge difference in physical and academic development that often is perpetuated throughout their educational careers.

The point is not to denigrate advanced academic programs; they are essential and reflect an understanding that one size of education does not fit all students. But it seems that if grades were divided in six-month increments rather than 12 months, more kids would have an opportunity to earn the nickname “Jimmy Buckets.”