The Downside of Redshirting

The trouble with older kindergarten.

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?

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.

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.”

This does not mean that redshirting upper-middle-class kids turns them into high-school drop-outs. Deming and Dynarski show that in 1968, 96 percent of 6-year-olds were enrolled in first grade or higher. In 2005, the rate was 84 percent. (Forget about skipping a grade—that went out at least a generation ago.) Redshirting explains two-thirds of the change, the authors find, and changes in state laws explain the rest. The kids who start later because of the legal changes—a group that is socio-economically broad—are probably fueling the second trend that Deming and Dynarski point to: fewer 17-year-olds in 12th grade or in college, which translates to fewer years of school for more kids. Laws in the United States (as opposed to some European countries) mandate that kids stay in school, not for a requisite number of years but until they are 18. “Poor kids are disproportionately likely to drop out as soon as they can, when they turn 18,” Dynarski explains. “If they start at 6 instead of 5, that’s one year less of school.”

The increasing availability of public pre-K becomes, then, not the additional year of school that early childhood educators and advocates wanted for families that can’t afford private preschool. Instead, pre-K, when it’s offered, just replaces what the first year of kindergarten used to be.

One more knock against delaying kindergarten: It doesn’t produce better test scores over the long run. If this delay did help, we could expect to see a cheery rise in the scores of 17-year-olds along with the rise in the number of 6-year-old kindergartners. Instead, the basic level of proficiency of 17-year-olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress “has not risen at a rate that would suggest the majority of students are learning at a grade level higher than they were 20 years ago,” Deming and Dynarski write.

All of this should make us leery of governmental policies that delay kindergarten. But back to your kid, because, well, he’s yours. He’s little. And immature. He could be the kid who won’t sit on the rug for reading time or the one who will cling to his mother’s leg. Won’t he be better off if he waits?

Deming and Dynarski do their best to argue no. “There is no evidence of a lasting benefit to education or earnings from being older than one’s classmates,” they write. Another recent study, by Sandra Black of UCLA, crunched data from Norway and actually found a small boost in IQ for starting school early, but little effect on educational attainment—how well kids do in school in the long run. The place where redshirting is a proven advantage is the sports field. For example, 60 percent more Major League Baseball players are born in August than in July, and the birthday cutoff for youth baseball is July 31. But athletics, Dynarski points out, isn’t academics.

No evidence of a lasting redshirting benefit, though, isn’t the same as convincing evidence of no benefit. What a lot of parents really want to know is whether redshirting improves a kid’s chances of grabbing the brass ring—admission to an elite college. Deming and Dynarski say they are “exploring whether age effects persist in this competitive arena.” Those are the kind of research results that will interest parents who can afford to choose between another year of preschool and kindergarten. For the sake of parents who can’t, it would be better if the perceived advantages of redshirting lose their shine.