All parents want the best for their kids.
Given that the education landscape is — or seems to be — more competitive than ever, many feel pressured to do whatever they can to gain an advantage for their child.
Thus redshirting — the practice of delaying the start of kindergarten — was born.
A Way to Get Ahead?
Redshirting stems from the idea that the older, more advanced members of a group will have a competitive edge over the rest, thus allowing them a better chance of success. Although the term comes from the sporting world — where it refers to athletes being kept out of competition to gain an additional year of practice — it has been repurposed to apply to the increasingly competitive world of kindergarten. Ostensibly, redshirting is meant to allow children who may not be “kindergarten-ready” an extra year of social, behavioral, academic, and physical development. But parents may redshirt for a host of reasons. Some may delay the start of kindergarten to give their child (they believe) an academic advantage over the rest of the class in the years to come. Others may redshirt a child who would otherwise be among the youngest or smallest (or both) members of the class. Still others may hope that their child’s relatively advanced physical development will lead to athletic stardom in high school.
Given the increased expectations for kindergarten — now referred to by some as “the new first grade,” it makes sense that parents are concerned for their young children, particularly those with atypical or delayed development, or those who may have difficulty sitting for several hours each day.
Rates of redshirting vary, and in fact, according to The Atlantic, the perception of how common redshirting is may be overblown. But parents may be more likely to hold kids back a grade if it appears that redshirting is the norm — and if they believe that their child could actually be at a disadvantage starting kindergarten on time.
Some estimate that nearly 20 percent of incoming kindergartners are redshirted each year (meaning that they start kindergarten the year after they are eligible, based on the cutoff date at their school), though other research estimates that only four to 4.5 percent of children are redshirted nationally. Higher rates of redshirting occur in districts that serve primarily white and wealthy families, according to The Wall Street Journal. (Given the high costs of preschool and pre-K, it is not surprising that many families cannot afford to pay for an additional year of child care before their children start kindergarten.) Additionally, redshirted students are typically male and born during the summer months, the latter of which would make them just barely old enough to start kindergarten (if they were not redshirted) according to most states' cutoff dates.
The Economics of Redshirting
Because families who wait before sending their kids to kindergarten tend to be relatively affluent, they can often afford an extra year of preschool. In practice, then, a child who is 6 years old could end up in the classroom with a child who is 4 years old. Unsurprisingly, the older student would likely score higher on standardized tests, a pattern that would make redshirting appear to work.
The economic and academic disparities widen when we consider that many students don’t have access to kindergarten — redshirted or not — at all. Even though it’s optional in 35 states, kindergarten provides an important year for exposing kids to key concepts that will prepare them for first grade. In kindergarten, kids learn basic reading, writing, and math, as well as certain social skills and habits, like sitting still and following directions, that help children become successful students. Because of its importance, kids are at a definite disadvantage if they don’t attend.
In some cases, kids who were redshirted in kindergarten may end up in first grade classes with younger students who did not have the opportunity to attend either pre-K or kindergarten. This situation puts everyone at a disadvantage. The likely discrepancy in skills among classmates creates a challenge for the school system, which must accommodate all levels of ability via differentiated instruction. According to recently-published research by Francis Huang, teachers tend to implement less-challenging instruction to address such differences, a tactic that leads some parents to call for increased rigor — and, in turn, may increase rates of redshirting. Studies also show that parents may redshirt their children in kindergarten if a school district has high numbers of students who repeat grades, suggesting that the two practices are correlated.
The Myth of the Redshirting Advantage
Are redshirted kids better off than their peers? Probably not.
There are myriad factors to consider, but most evidence suggests that while the “gift of time” is, in fact, a gift, it only offers short-term benefits — and may have drawbacks, as well.
While some studies, such as those cited in The Wall Street Journal, indicate that older students score four to 12 percent higher on standardized tests in middle school, others suggest that the effect fades away by then.
Huang in particular offers compelling data against the practice of redshirting. According to his study, redshirted students are more likely to be placed in special education programs or have behavior or substance abuse issues. Students who were relatively old for their grade because of redshirting were described as less engaged in school, and had lower rates of homework completion, lower scores on standardized tests, and a higher likelihood of dropping out of high school. Compare this to students who were relatively young for their grade, who were described as valuing school more, with better attendance rates. In fact, according to a 2007 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, there’s evidence to suggest that kids may perform better when they are in classes with older students.
Redshirting and Its Consequences
Even if if the negative effects of redshirting itself are debatable — after all, the need to delay kindergarten may be a sign of an existing trouble, rather than the cause of a new one — there are other consequences to consider. For instance, an extra year of school means one less year of income because a student’s entry into the workforce is delayed. According to Cornell researchers Kevin Kniffin and Andrew Hanks, students who waited an extra year to begin kindergarten were not more likely to complete a Ph.D., which is one measure of long-term academic success. The ones who did complete a Ph.D., however, missed out on an extra year of income, which (because of how cumulative earnings reflect compounded wage increases) amounted to a loss of $138,000 over their lifetimes.
In the midst of what feels like a wealth of data, it’s still difficult to parse out some of the key effects of redshirting. There is a difference between a child who is relatively old for a particular grade and a child whose parents have expressly delayed the start of kindergarten. Redshirting can send a message to a child that, right from the start, achievement is the top priority, and the parents don’t think she is good enough to be in a grade with her peers. If children are kept from school because they don’t meet a parent’s expectation for what a kindergartner should look like, they may miss the opportunity to develop the skills they need at the appropriate time. And if a student does have a developmental delay, then access to individualized educational support services should be provided sooner rather than later.
Despite evidence suggesting that redshirting may do more harm than good, the practice continues to gain traction in some communities.
In reality, there are no easy answers. But based on the data, it’s often better to get kids in the game than have them sit out an entire year.
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