In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept of relative age using the 2007 Medicine Hat Ice Hockey Team to illustrate the point. In youth hockey, players are grouped by birth year. On that team, the overwhelming majority of players were born in January, February and March, In fact, in Canadian Junior Hockey, 40% of players will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and September and only 10% between October and December. Why is this? In layman's terms, the theory is because they were born shortly after the cutoff date those boys were a bit older, mature and physically developed when they initially tried out for hockey. Over time, this initial advantage creates a situation where those players get placed on better teams, receive better coaching, more practice time, etc. and the initial competitive advantage is multiplied over time.
What does a team from Alberta competing in a Canadian Junior Hockey League have to do with schools? Well, the phenomenon of relative age exists in education as well. While the dates differ slightly from state to state, each state has a minimum age requirement. In Michigan for the 13-14 school year, a child must be 5 years of age on November 1, 2013 to enroll in school. Therefore, children whose birthdays occur in November, December and January will, relative to their peers, be a bit older, more mature and physically developed than a classmate born in September or October.
Why does this matter? Simple. Regardless of what the cutoff date is, (for school or sport) there will always be someone born shortly after the cutoff date who will be older, more mature and physically developed than a classmate / teammate born just before the cutoff date. The challenge for educators is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed, regardless of what month they are born in. We cannot allow the initial advantages of maturity and development to create a perpetual cycle of more attention, more opportunity and therefore more success through the years. It is our responsibility to ensure that each student achieves his or her maximum potential, regardless of their relative age!