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Parents who have children with birthdays on the cusp between two school years increasingly face a quandary.
Should they hold their child back a year – also known as academic redshirting – to allow them to enter kindergarten as the oldest in the grade, or is it better to send them straight away as the youngest in the grade?
“This is one of the most popular questions out there on the playground,” Diane Schanzenbach, an education researcher and professor at Northwestern University, said on the podcast EdNext. “I think more often than not it’s a mistake to redshirt your kindergartener,” she continued.
The concept behind academic redshirting is that withholding a child from school one year will allow them to mature and have physical, social, and academic advantages over the younger children in the classroom.
The authors write finds that families with college-educated parents are the most likely to redshirt children, and especially boys who are born in the summer before the cutoff date for elementary school enrollment. About one in five boys born to educated parents during the summer are redshirted. The overall population tends to redshirt about 6% of the time.
The article takes aim at claims that there are significant benefits to redshirting children for academic reasons, and specifically targets author Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the concept of academic redshirting in his 2008 hit “Outliers.”
In the first chapter of “Outliers,” Gladwell points to a study on an international math and science scores by two economists – Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey. The chapter reads:
“They found that among fourth graders, the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentile points better than the youngest children. That, as Dhuey explains, is a ‘huge effect.’ It means that if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger child could score in the sixty-eighth percentile. That’s the difference between qualifying for a gifted program and not.”
Schanzenbach and Larson argue that while there may initially be some benefit to holding a child back from their intended grade, it doesn’t last.
“In his analysis, Gladwell overstates the benefits of redshirting to some degree,” the article reads. “In fact, a balanced look at the research suggests that while children derive a short-term gain from being redshirted, that advantage dissipates quickly over time.” It notes that while a year marks a huge proportion of a 5-year-old’s life, it is a less significant amount of time for an 18-year-old.
Further, the authors cite research to claim that the opposite may be true and that younger students actually have steeper academic gains from learning with older students.
Athletics is one of the main areas that may lead parents to choose to redshirt students. In fact, the first chapter of Gladwell’s book uses a Canadian hockey league example as a launch point to describe the ways that age can impact if kids make it onto highly competitive teams.
But even here, Schanzenbach expressed unease. “The data just aren’t clear on this,” she said on EdNext. Further, youth sports leagues increasingly look to age rather than grade, she argued.
Still, there are limited instances where redshirting provides benefits for students, according to Schanzenbach and Larson. In instances of illness or trauma, students may benefit developmentally from having time to recover before being placed in the classroom.