Kindergarten Redshirting

A front-page article a few weeks ago in my hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, investigates a pet peeve of mine: kindergarten redshirting. The state of Connecticut is looking into curtailing the practice.

For those unfamiliar with sports terminology, “redshirting” is the practice, prevalent in college football, of having a freshman repeat a year (the red shirt is a practice jersey, meaning he doesn’t play in games) so that he can grow physically, work out in the weight room, and be a more dominant player when he restarts as a second-year freshman the next season.

From college sports this practice has trickled all the way down... to five-year-olds. In my state, Connecticut, the age cut-off for any grade level is January 1st, meaning that the slightly older kindergartners are five in the fall and six in the spring, while the slightly younger ones are four in the fall and five in the spring. More and more parents whose children fall on the younger end of the spectrum (full disclosure: my fourth-grade daughter has a January birthday, so she’s on the older end) are keeping them out of kindergarten for a year, so that instead of being the youngest in class, they begin as the oldest. Some of these “redshirt kindergartners” are as old as seven by the time they finish kindergarten.

Lurking behind this decision is something known as “the relative-age effect.” Once again, the model is sports – and specifically a study, cited by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book, Outliers, which he claimed showed a significant disproportion of professional hockey players with birthdays in the first quarter of their birth years. Birthdays should be distributed randomly among any large group, and in Gladwell’s gloss of the study, the disproportionate incidence of early birthdays suggests that many successful hockey players established a pattern of dominance early on – based on their slight developmental advantage over younger classmates – and kept it.

Gladwell’s take on this study has been widely challenged and debated.  But true or not, the study and its developmental implications have clearly percolated through the minds of today’s ambitious, anxious, Malcolm Gladwell-reading parents, who took from it this imperative: don’t let your child be the youngest! And so they redshirt them – hoping to give them a slight advantage in the relentless competitive struggle they understand American life to be.

Almost no parent will admit this, of course. A very few are honest enough to say, “Look, I want to give my child a leg up.” But most simply insist that their child is too “immature,” or “too young,” or “not ready” for kindergarten. Well, apparently there’s a lot of immaturity out there. Recent evidence indicates that nearly ten per cent of kindergarten-age children nationally are not entering kindergarten.

One obvious problem with widespread redshirting is that once some parents start doing this, others feel pressured to respond, resulting in a kind of arms-race dynamic. Where’s the stopping point? After all, someone has to be the youngest kid in class. Point this out to parents, and they get it – in theory. Yes, they know someone has to be the youngest. Just not their kid.

There is a troubling side to this practice, one that reveals the social Darwinism at its core. As the Courant article points out, most school systems do not have universal free pre-kindergarten, and the average cost of private preschool in Connecticut is almost $11,000 per year. Under-resourced families, in other words, can’t afford the redshirt year. In one hardscrabble town near where I live, New Britain, where household income is the second lowest in the state, a mere one in 40 kindergarten students waited a year to enroll in kindergarten. Indeed, poorer parents, facing money pressures that wealthier families are insulated from, generally clamor to get their kids into kindergarten as early as possible. And so redshirting becomes just another tool in the kit of those whose social, intellectual and financial capital already puts them far ahead.

It also serves up a curious sign of the times. When I was young, families ambitious for their child’s education typically had their kid skip a grade. Now those same families are holding them back. Interesting.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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