Melinda Moyer talks kindergarten redshirting:

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.

I like to say that I failed Pre-K. The truth is that I was held back. Which was a bit confusing at the time, since my peers were going on to kindergarten while I wasn’t. It’s also the case that while I was academically held back, in most kiddie sports leagues I was not. So my sports teammates were one set of kids, while having another set in school.

The only exception to that was after I “retired” and was brought back, movie-style, when a team needed a player. So I was one of the oldest kids out there. It was, not coincidentally, the only year I made the league allstar team. Which may or may not be instructive. It was definitely to my advantage when I was the oldest kid, and my disadvantage when I was one of the youngest. I fixate on baseball because that’s where it was particularly pronounced. The allstar year, I was at the top of a two year age bracket* and even apart from my waived year, my batting average was reflective of whether I was on the upper grade or lower grade of the bracket.

Scholastically? I’m not sure whether it helped much or not. My graders in school were pretty lousy starting at around the third grade and ending in the sixth. The grades were okay before that, and good after that. Would it have been worse if I was a grade ahead? I’m not sure how much of a difference it made for me. My grades were largely a product of effort (or lack thereof).

It’s a tad frustrating to think of parents holding kids back for positional reasons.

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.

It also may be ineffective:

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.

Given that boredom was an issue for me, maybe I would have done better. I do think I would have done better in honors classes than I did in regular for that reason.

As the article goes on to note, though, redshirted kids aren’t a random sample. I was held back because I was a borderline performer with learning issues. And so you would expect there to be more of such kids in special ed. I am sympathetic to the follow-up argument that often redshirting is a misdiagnosis and on that basis alone may do more harm than good.

* – The leagues were two grades, but the teams were one and elevated together. Meaning that 7th and 8th grade was the Tiger League, but the team I elevated with was full of seventh graders and me and a few other holdbacks. The next year almost all of the team was 8th graders but I was in the seventh and we were playing against 7th grade teams as well. The allstar year, I was old enough to be in the 9th grade, but was in the 8th grade and was playing against 7th and 8th graders. It was the only time I really had the age advantage.

Category: School

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