The trouble with older kindergarten.

Snapshots of life at home.
Aug. 1 2008 7:18 AM

The Downside of Redshirting

The trouble with older kindergarten.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

At what age should children go to kindergarten? At what age should your child go to kindergarten? What if these questions appear to have different answers?

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

Increasingly, that seems to be the conclusion of upper-middle-class parents who redshirt their kids when it's time for kindergarten. The calculus goes like this: You look at your 4-year-old, especially if he's a boy, and consider that his summer or fall birthday (depending on the state and its birthday cutoff) means that he'll be younger than most of the other kids in his kindergarten class. So you decide to send him a year later. Now he's at the older end of his class. And you presume that the added maturity will give him an edge from grade to grade. The school may well support your decision. If it's a private school, they probably have a later birthday cutoff anyway. And if it's a public school, a principal or kindergarten teacher may suggest that waiting another year before kindergarten is in your kid's interest despite the official policy.

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Individually speaking, no harm done, perhaps, though the presumed benefit is an open question. But collectively, delaying kindergarten is a bad idea—especially for poor kids, for whom it often means one more year of no school. Kindergarten is free. In most states, preschool and pre-K are not. Sending kids to school early is a major initiative of the childhood education movement. Putting off kindergarten takes us in the opposite direction, toward less access to school for younger kids.

Fine, but choosing to keep your little Hudson out of kindergarten doesn't affect the low-income kindergartners out there, does it? Well, it might. A new study suggests that the effects of kindergarten redshirting are more serious and long-term than one might have thought.

To begin with, 6-year-old kindergartners create an age span in the classroom that extends not only more than 12 months, but as much as 18 months. That's significant, developmentally, and it can make it harder for the younger ones to keep up—especially in this age of academic kindergarten, which can involve more sitting still and pencil work than play or naptime. In addition, the trend toward older kindergarten among well-off families may be fueling the trend toward state laws that delay kindergarten for everyone. As Elizabeth Weil noted in a great piece on redshirting in the New York Times Magazine last year, almost half the states have pushed back their birthday cutoffs since 1975, several of them fairly recently.

It's easy to see what the states are up to: They're worried about test scores, and they figure that older kids plus academic kindergarten will produce better ones. But this approach turns out to be extremely shortsighted, according to new research by David Deming of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan. The authors find that starting kindergarten late correlates with dropping out of high school and earning less afterward. "There is substantial evidence that entering school later reduces educational attainment (by increasing high school drop out rates) and depresses lifetime earnings (by delaying entry into the job market)," the authors write. Also, "recent stagnation in the high school and college completion rates of young people is partly explained by their later start in primary school."

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