Last week, 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. (Journalist Malcolm Gladwell made this “relative age effect” famous in his book Outliers when he pointed out that many professional hockey players were born between January and March and thus had been the oldest on their school hockey teams; however, this effect does not seem to exist for football, volleyball, and basketball or any women’s sports.)
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 here 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.