"Redshirting:" A Kindergarten Arms Race
by Steve Sailer
UPI, July 25, 2002
Jamie Horowitz, a Washington, D.C., father of three small boys, faced a dilemma increasingly common among parents, especially middle-class families with boys. Should he and his wife "redshirt" their oldest son so that he spends a second year in pre-school and then finally enters kindergarten at the age of 6, rather than the traditional age of 5?
It's a family decision that is beginning to have a broader social impact as the number mounts of parents voluntarily holding back their children for an extra year before starting kindergarten.
Redshirting was a major question for the Horowitzes because it would mean their boy would be older than most of his classmates for the rest of his educational career. "We had to consider it because we knew so many children who were being held back," Horowitz said. "There's a big difference between a child who is 5 years and a day and a child who is 5 years and 11 months. The older child is just much more advanced and, in theory, ready to learn. Some kids, however, if you hold them back, they may be bored."
The term "redshirt" comes from college sports, where it's frequent for athletes to sit out a year so that they'll be older, bigger and more mature when they do play. More and more parents, and even states, are now doing something similar with their little ones, for roughly the same reasons.
Students are all different. At any particular age, some are more ready for that grade's academic work, some less.
A couple of generations ago, there was more emphasis on bright students accelerating their education. The University of Chicago, for example, famously recruited very young entrants. Well-known graduates of the U. of Chicago who began college several years earlier than normal included astronomer Carl Sagan, composer Philip Glass, geneticist James D. Watson, and thrill-kill murderer Nathan Leopold. But the pendulum has now swung in the opposite direction.
Close to 10 percent of all preschoolers are now redshirted, and that rate appears to be doubling every decade or so. Although the students who involuntarily get held back a grade by the school later in their careers tend to be from disadvantaged groups, voluntarily redshirted students tend to be white and middle class.
Redshirting implies that parents will have to support the child for an extra year before he can graduate from high school at age 19 and start to earn a living, which may make it less financially feasible for the poor.
Many parents dread the possibility of having their child involuntarily held back in the middle of his school career because he's fallen behind academically. They worry that if he was forced to repeat, say, the third grade while all his friends were going on to the fourth grade, it could be traumatizing. Redshirting is seen as a way to preclude that painful possibility. Preschoolers are much less plugged into a peer group than older children and their expectations are less rigid, so attending preschool for another year is less psychologically fraught.
The urge to redshirt is also found among state legislators. From 1975 to 2000, 22 states raised the minimum age at which a child is allowed to start kindergarten by moving the cutoff birthrate back earlier in the year. This has the effect of making younger children redshirt involuntarily. Only one state cut the starting age, and that by a mere two weeks.
Both parents and states have similar motivations. First, in recent years, class work has become increasingly difficult as school try to attain higher standards.
Although most adults vaguely remember kindergarten as an idyllic year of naps, snacks and feeding the class hamster, it has become ever more academically demanding. Paul Young, the president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, noted, "Kindergarten is not what it used to be."
Horowitz recounted, "Even though in our eyes, our son's perfect, there are areas where he needed improvement. Like on penmanship, he went to a preschool that didn't seem to feel that was important, but by the time he was getting out of preschool, they were saying, 'Well, he's not writing well enough for kindergarten.'
"I don't recall writing at all in preschool," Horowitz mused. "But that's one way education has changed. You go to children's birthday parties these days for someone turning 5, and they are signing their own names to the thank-you note, and maybe your child's name as well on the envelope. So, we've been working with our son on penmanship, and now he prints better than I do."
Second, redshirting is an arms race. Horowitz observed, "Some people think redshirting will give their kids an academic edge." Conversely, as redshirting becomes more popular, parents can be concerned that if they don't redshirt their children, their offspring will be out-competed for the rest of their school careers by older classmates who did redshirt.
Horowitz went on, "And I've heard from some people that they think it will give their kids an athletic edge, that in later years they'll do better on sports teams."
Redshirting may indeed help boys obtain college sports scholarships. Male athletes don't reach peak strength until their mid-20s, so coaches would tend to look favorably upon older recruits. For example, Brigham Young University has some of the oldest teams competing in the NCAA because its Mormon students take two years off beginning at age 19 for overseas missionary work. Rival coaches sometimes complain that this gives BYU teams an advantage.
Somewhat similarly, states have been moving to raise the age of their students so that their students will achieve higher average scores on national tests. A 1999 California law changing the minimum birthdate from December to September explained, "Comparisons between California pupils and pupils in other states on national achievement tests in the later grades are likely to be more equitable if the entry age of California pupils is more closely aligned to that of most other states."
Of course, even if its test scores go up, California won't necessarily be doing a better job of educating its children. It's just doing what educators all over have known for years. The easiest way to have your students score better on measures of educational performance is to start with students who score better on the measurements even before you try to educate them. Requiring students to be older when they start at the front end of the educational process is an attractive, if sneaky, approach to getting seemingly more impressive results out the back end.
This is true both with kindergarteners and professional students. For example, master of business administration programs are largely evaluated on the starting salaries of their graduates. Back in the '70s, business schools realized that the higher the salary a student earned in his last job before entering the MBA program, the higher his likely starting salary upon graduating.
So, elite business schools virtually stopped taking new college graduates. Entering MBA students at the famous Wharton School at the U. of Pennsylvania now average a full six years of work experience. Those spectacular near-six-figure starting salaries that MBA schools trumpet are less amazing when you realize that it's not uncommon for the average student at a top school to have left behind a job paying $65,000 or more.
Young, the principal of a Lancaster, Ohio, elementary school, sees about one out of every seven kids in his school being redshirted. The majority are boys, because "boys are slower to develop," he said. Only one or two children a year of his 60-75 new entrants start school a year early.
Young advises parents to be cautious about redshirting preschoolers. If your child turns out not to be ready for kindergarten, he can repeat that year. After all, he notes, "It's not the end of the world if a kid does kindergarten twice." In contrast, if your child redshirts but turns out to be bored with his less challenging schoolwork, it can be difficult to advance him a grade.
Redshirted students can be significantly bigger than their classmates, but that hasn't caused a problem in Young's experience. "I'd rather see big hulking boys who are at the right grade level and are happy."
Marilou Hyson, an executive with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, is not terribly enthusiastic about redshirting. She feels a key overlooked question is, "What are the redshirted children doing in the year they are not in kindergarten?" If the child is not spending that year at a first-rate preschool or being expertly home-schooled, he might not be maturing as fast as he would be if he were in kindergarten.
She cited the finding by Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Stanford school of education, "That the studies comparing age and school effects suggest that educational intervention found in schools contributes more to children's cognitive competencies overall than does maturation."
Hyson agreed with Stipek's suggestion that, "We would do a much greater service to children if we focused more on making school ready for children than on making children ready for school." Hyson contended that if boys were having a harder time with the demands of modern kindergartens, such as displaying good penmanship, then the curriculum should be reformed to be less biased against the male sex. "Perhaps kindergarten shouldn't emphasize penmanship," she recommended.
Overall, Hyson feared that we were creating a vicious cycle. Kindergarten might continue getting more advanced, causing the average age of kindergarten students to go up in response, which in turn would allow the academic demands to be ratcheted up further. Eventually, after much turmoil, kindergarten might turn out to be simply first grade under a different name, with the same curriculum and the same age students as first grade traditionally had.
As for the Horowitz family's decision about what to do with their preschooler, he summed up, "We considered redshirting, but in the end, after talking to his teachers, we felt it was best if he entered kindergarten with the majority of his peers."