M/cloudy
54°
M/cloudy
Hi 72° | Lo 52°

Does ‘Redshirting’ Kindergarteners Harm or Help as the Years Go By?

Cold Spring, n.y. — Recently two of my neighbors sent their 5-year-olds on the school bus for the first time. The families were excited but also mildly terrified. I look back fondly on kindergarten — I remember soaring around the playground as an eagle with my friend Kathleen — but kindergarten today is a vastly different beast than it was 30 years ago. Many schools have ditched play-based exploratory programs in favor of direct instruction and regular testing, in part thanks to the pressure to improve grade-school test scores. As many experts I spoke to for this column told me, kindergarten is the new first grade.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that an estimated 9 percent of parents don’t send their 5-year-olds to kindergarten anymore. They wait a year so that their savvy 6-year-olds can better handle the curriculum. This so-called “academic redshirting,” a nod to the practice of keeping young athletes on the bench until they are bigger and more skilled, is highly controversial. The National Association of Early Childhood Specialists and the National Association for the Education of Young Children fiercely oppose it, saying that redshirting “labels children as failures at the outset of their school experience.” Studies that have evaluated how well redshirted kids fare compared to their schooled-on-time peers conclude that redshirting provides no long-term academic or social advantages and can even put kids at a disadvantage.

The practice has become even more controversial in recent years over claims that some parents do it for the wrong reasons: They redshirt their kids not because their kids aren’t ready for school, but because, in the age of parenting as competitive sport, holding them out might give them an academic, social and athletic edge over their peers. If little Delia is the star of kindergarten, they scheme, maybe she’ll ride the wave all the way to Harvard. Gaming the system this way, of course, puts other kids at a disadvantage.

Yet some experts say that redshirting can be extremely appropriate and helpful for certain kids, and they aren’t convinced by the research pooh-poohing the practice. That’s because the impact of redshirting is very difficult to evaluate, as kids who are held back are fundamentally different in many ways from kids who go to kindergarten on time, so the conclusions of some studies might be flawed. And even if redshirting might not be beneficial when effects are averaged, there could be a subset of kids who really benefit from the extra “gift of time.” But before I get into that, let me summarize some of the studies.

In 2006, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California analyzed national data collected over many years from 15,000 26-year-olds. They compared what became of kids who had been redshirted to what became of kids who had been young for their class but not redshirted. They found that the redshirted kids performed worse on 10th-grade tests, were twice as likely to drop out of school, and were less likely to graduate from college; the only advantage to redshirting was that redshirted kids were marginally more likely to play varsity sports in high school.

Other research suggests that redshirted kids are less motivated and engaged than their younger peers in high school and that they are more likely to require special education services. And in a 2008 review, David Deming, an economist of education at Harvard University, and Susan Dynarski, an education and public policy expert at the University of Michigan, concluded that redshirted kids also tend to have lower IQs and earnings as adults. This latter finding is probably linked to the fact that redshirted teens are more likely to drop out of high school than non-redshirted teens. Redshirted kids tend to have lower lifetime earnings, too, because they enter the labor force a year later.

If all this makes you think redshirting is a really bad idea, you’re not alone. Many articles, including a piece published at Slate and a 2011 New York Times op-ed titled “Delay Kindergarten at Your Child’s Peril,” have deftly argued against the practice. Others point out that redshirting could be bad on a societal level, too: When lots of kids in school are redshirted, parents demand a more advanced curriculum — they often “argue that they have invested in a child’s education, and the school must now individualize to meet a 6-year-old’s needs,” says Beth Graue, a curriculum and instruction expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Education Research — and this could create a vicious cycle making kindergarten more and more challenging, encouraging more and more redshirting. And when redshirting is common, it can put young low-income children at a disadvantage, because these kids may not be ready for the curriculum, yet their parents often can’t afford to pay for an extra year of preschool.

Yet as I mentioned earlier, the impact of redshirting is not as clear-cut as it sounds. First, much of the research on redshirting is pretty old — some of the key studies I cited relied on cohorts of kids who were redshirted in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and kindergarten has changed a lot since then. Redshirting has also become more common over the years, although it started becoming popular as early as the 1990s. Second, redshirted kids are usually vastly different from non-redshirted kids before they even get to school, so it can be difficult to separate the effects of redshirting from these fundamental differences. Redshirted kids these days are most likely to be boys who come from affluent families — one study from California reported that parents who redshirt their kids earn, on average, 40 percent more than those who don’t — because, as mentioned earlier, low-income parents typically can’t afford to pay for another year of preschool. So when researchers compare redshirted kids to non-redshirted kids, they’re often comparing socio-economic apples and oranges.

At this point, I know you’re pulling your hair out and just want to know: So what should I do when it comes time to enroll my kid in kindergarten? I asked this of Deborah Stipek, the former dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, who has studied redshirting and relative age effects. She says that parents should consider more than just their child when it comes time to make enrollment decisions — they need to consider their kindergarten, too.

“I usually suggest that parents visit the kindergarten, sit in the back of the room, and envision their child in that setting, because there are some kindergartens where children would be dying if they had poor self-regulation, whereas other kindergartens are much more tolerant and much more amenable to kids who need extra support,” she says. “I think it really depends on the kid in the context of what the educational program demands.”

Moyer is a science writer who lives in Cold Spring, N.Y.