Redshirting doesn't work

Redshirting kindergarteners — holding young students out of kindergarten for a year — is supposed to provide an academic edge, especially for boys. The redshirt will be older, bigger and more mature than classmates. It doesn’t work that way, writes Emily Bazelon on Slate. She cites new research by David Deming of Harvard 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.”

Of course, late starters may be less mature and early starters may be especially bright. However, another study looks at Norwegians, who are required to start school in the year they turn seven. Older starters — those with early-in-the-year birthdays — had no advantage over the younger starters with late birthdays. Matthew Ladner writes: “This fad is like many previous education fads: intuitively plausible but actually worthless.”

About Joanne


  1. Elizabeth says:

    Hmmm…it has worked with my boys and countless others that have held back their kids. The private school students tend to be a year old…seems to work for them, too. Just where did this author get her info? Not from my part of the country.

  2. I think that parents must look at each child individually and make the decision about when to start kindergarten. It’s pretty difficult to get a child to do something if he isn’t ready.

  3. To redshirt or not says:

    In my town, parents who hold their children back send them to special pre-kindergarten programs designed only for eligible-but-not-ready-for-kindergarten kids. With all the enrichment and learning that goes on in those programs, it is hard to imagine these children are harmed by the extra year “off.” Others who cannot afford preschool or child care tend to send their children to kindergarten as soon as possible.

    So I wonder just how big a problem “redshirting” is and how many parents who redshirt choose to keep their children home that extra year with nothing to do?

    The problem is not the child’s start age, but what happens during that “gap” year and beyond. If the children in the study had quality preschools and quality public schools (ones that differentiate to reach each child’s learning needs) the study’s conclusions likely would have been different.

    I’d think that redshirting would be applauded by parents and researchers given the pumped up academic expectations for kinders these days and the need for all kids to get a college education.

    – In 2000, the National Center for Education Statistics seemed to agree, finding older children better prepared academically – in reading, writing and arithmetic – and more persistent and more socially adept than their same grade, younger peers.

    – In 2006, UC economist Kelly Bedard found that the oldest students in their grade were almost 12 percent more likely to enroll in four-year colleges than their younger, same grade peers.

    And for those parents trying to raise the next Olympian, studies show that the age edge gives children an athletic edge too.

  4. As long as executive functions and maturity are the criteria for success in k-8, then parents will continue to redshirt. It’s not all about “getting an edge.”

    Some of my kid’s grade school schedules looked like my old college ones. It was ridiculous.

  5. I took the advice of my son’s private pre-school teachers that he should be held back (he has an August birthday). When he attended their private kindergarten, he was challenged and fit in well. Unfortunately, when we had to put him in public school for the first grade (into a very highly rated school and school district, by the way), it was a disaster! He was bored and unhappy. Making a long story short, he ended up skipping the second grade over the objections of his teacher and went on to be successful. My advice is to look carefully at BOTH the child AND the school. Sometimes it’s very hard with a boy to figure out what will work best if the child is bright but immature.

  6. I’m with Elizabeth, and others here who are suspicious of the study. I just don’t see results with my own kids and their friends that are consistent with the results of the study. We know many children (more often boys, but some girls, too) who were held back a year because of later birthdays or immaturity. In every case, these students are either in college, or doing well in high school (Don’t get me wrong, not all are honor students — but they are certainly all on track to graduate high school.)

    We held back our youngest son who was born prematurely in October (his due date was January, after our school’s cut-off date anyway). We didn’t really see it as giving him an edge — we saw it as possible disaster if we were to send him before he was ready. Also… even if he did well going to Kindergarten as soon as he could, he’d be off to college at 17. What is the point in that? We figured it was an easy decision to offer him an extra year of childhood.

  7. Is there any evidence that the push to move the birthday cut-off date from December to September (or even earlier in some districts) has raised student achievement? Both my mom and my DH have November birthdays and started kindergarten when they were not quite 5 and my dad started 1st grade when he was 5 1/2 (his district didn’t offer kindergarten). All of them graduated at or very near the top of their classes and all excelled at elite universities. I was born in January and therefore just missed the cutoff; I was very bored in school until tracking started in 5th grade because I was so far ahead of my classmates academically.

    One of the reasons we started homeschooling our DD is because she has an October birthday and just missed the cutoff. She was totally ready but there was no flexibility in getting an individual evaluation for “early” entry. We didn’t want to waste a year so we started kindergarten at home.

  8. I think you all are missing the point in your rush to talk about your own anecdata. There are serious collective action problems with redshirting, many of which are disadvantaging low income kids–both those who are redshirted and those who *aren’t* redshirted but are instead stuck in class with your kids, who are on their second year of kindergarten and thus more institutionalized. That, coupled with no genuine advantage (leave your anecdata behind, folks), makes it a problematic issue.

  9. I have actually heard of some parents doing this is some parts of Texas and Ohio for athletic reasons. They hold off on sending their boys to school (in some cases allow them to be held back before entering 9th grade), so that when they reach high school they are physically superior to their competition on the football field. At no point does their actual “education” enter the logic behind this decision. Shame.

    Hall Monitor

  10. Cal

    I am confused. Are you arguing that “better prepared” students are problematic? How are low income children disadvantaged? I do agree that red shirted students may not be better prepared, but no one has given an example. Why couldn’t we get one negative anecdote on this issue? I am not sure that babbie’s post was a negative anecdote.

  11. When Should a Kid Start Kindergarten?

    Here’s the NY Times piece referenced in that Slate article. I would think it’s fairly obvious even before reading the article how redshirting disadvantages low income kids, but this article’s emphasis on income should make it clearer.

  12. Mrs. Davis says:

    OK, Lori. Who ya gonna believe, educationist research or your lying eyes?

  13. Lori and Elizabeth,

    when you say it “Worked” for your kids, are you claiming your kids got an ADVANTAGE out of it that they would have otherwise not had? Or merely “my kid did well enough by my standards”. Because your own anecdote says “everyone else is doing it too”–doesn’t sound like an advantage to be had there. Sounds like a fallacy of composition on your part.

    What data do you have to claim if you had let your kids go ahead a year earlier, they would have done worse?

  14. –He’d be off to college at 17. What is the point in that?

    Huh? Lots of kids go to college at 17, some at 16 or 15 or younger. What’s the issue? That they aren’t legally adults? Therefore, what, precisely? what magic change occurred on their 18th birthday that made college suddenly within their abilities but not the day before?

    The point is that they are done with school. Boring them to tears when they are 15 and stuck in junior high might be something to consider when you decide to hold your 5 yr old back to pre K.

  15. Tom West says:

    What data do you have to claim if you had let your kids go ahead a year earlier, they would have done worse?

    Indeed, that is the vital question. Certainly my child was *not* ready for kindergarten, but red-shirting wasn’t a offered option. Today he’s doing nicely.

    I suspect if we’d red-shirted him, we’d now be crediting that rather than simply his natural maturation in later grades.

    One should note a few things about the study.

    (1) It does *not* say that no-one benefits from red-shirting. Only that the on-average there is no benefit.

    (2) Between a narrative that makes sense, and data that contradicts that narrative, the narrative will almost always win in the minds of anyone but a few statisticians. Red-shirting will continue.

    (3) Statistically, it doesn’t do any harm, and it allows parents another measure of control in a system that allows for very little. That may be a good in and of itself.

    (4) For most parents, grades are only one measure of success. Red-shirting may have other rewards for students that are not measured.

  16. Greifer:

    I should have been more clear in my post. I think that shortening a person’s childhood is (generally) a bad thing… But then, my kids aren’t geniuses who are bored because they already know everything (I’d actually consider skipping a child ahead in that case, or private school, or home school, but that’s another topic.) My 4 children are rather average, scholastically, so please keep that in mind as you consider my point of view.

    Nope, no “magic 18th birthday”, except in the eyes of the law. 😉

    And I held my 4 year old back, not my 5 year old… and he is not bored, he actually struggles with writing quite a bit, but does fairly well in other areas. He’s now looking forward to 5th grade, even though he’s one of the oldest in his class.

    Hope that clarifies some things. It’s ok if you don’t agree with me. You made some good points. I value your opinion, hope you can tolerate mine.


  17. Soapbox Diva says:

    I am someone who barely made the cutoff so I started at age 4 and started college at age 17. I regretted the decision my entire life. I was smart enough, but socially it was a disaster. I would redshirt my own children if they were on the borderline.

  18. It´s a split effect. “Among kids whose secondary school completion is not at risk, there is some evidence that being more mature at the start of primary school improves academic performance. Among kids whose secondary school completion is at risk, the evidence is overwhelming that being older at the start of primary school will reduce educational attainment.”

    Later in the paper, the authors note that (paraphrased) for high SES kids, a later entry is advantageous, while for low SES kids, a later entry could be disadvantageous, due to the relative quality of the home environments.

    Is there a social advantage in forcing all students to perform at the same level, at the same age? Or, do we want students to perform as well as they can, given their individual circumstances? Why the emphasis on restricting the choices middle-class parents can make, rather than trying to improve the educational environment for those children most at risk?

    Also, the argument about losing a year of earning potential is very weak. Do you think that we´ll have a set age for retirement in 20 years? I don´t. As a matter of fact, I think that economic forces will force the age to rise into the 70s and beyond. Even now, white collar workers are much less likely to be forced into retirement. Those children who enter the professions are more likely to work longer.

  19. Cardinal Fang says:

    Thanks, Parent2. Always click the link! Your description of the study makes more sense than Joanne’s. Now I can see why the posters here have anecdotal evidence that redshirting worked for their children– it’s a safe bet that the children of posters here are not at risk of dropping out, so they fall in the group of redshirts who have an advantage.