Commentary

In Support of Academic Redshirting

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When a football player in college demonstrates a great deal of ability, he sometimes sits out a year of play so that the additional year of physical growth and development will make it possible for him to reach even greater athletic success when he returns to the game. This practice, called "redshirting," occurs not only in colleges but also in high schools and even middle schools.

The extra time set aside for physical development is considered a good investment in light of its return--eventual athletic success that outstrips what would have been achieved had the player not waited.

This year, a group of Atlanta elementary educators are setting out to show that the principle of allowing students the time they need to develop has useful implications for certain academic situations as well, especially for children from low-income families entering kindergarten.

It is important to remember that success in school is not simply measured in terms of achievement, but rather achievement within a given time period. A child at a certain age is expected to be in a certain grade. Each child is required to master specific knowledge and skills during the time spent in this grade. Failure to achieve such mastery usually has one of two results: Either the student moves on to the next grade improperly prepared, or the student is said to have failed and must repeat the grade, burdened by the stigma of failure.

This scenario is played out even at the kindergarten level. As long as children are admitted into kindergarten only once a year, there is likely to be at least a year's difference between the stages of development of the least mature and most mature students. Since schools generally perceive as satisfactory progress the mastery of the information and skills deemed appropriate for a given grade, including kindergarten, the attempt to squeeze a heterogeneous population into a homogeneous mold is quite likely to overlook important variations and needs among students. Many would benefit from extra time spent mastering skills, yet the stigma of failure lands just as hard on kindergartners as it does on adults.

Kindergarten programs, as currently conceived, can have especially unfortunate consequences for low-income children. Whether we admit it or not, schools tend to establish criteria that are fashioned in the image of the middle-income child. Minimum-competency requirements for kindergartners--ranging from the earliest readiness skills demanded by some schools, such as the ability to follow directions and hold a pencil, to the actual reading competency required by others--are beyond the maximum many low-income children can achieve in the time allotted. Since they must fit into a graded structure, such children are not likely to be properly prepared for the next grade at any stage of their education.

Head Start has made a valuable contribution to the readiness of many low-income children. But what about those who are not exposed to Head Start experiences? At Atlanta's L.J. Campbell School, we have begun adjusting our thinking about the amount of time children spend in academic activities in the first year in school. It is clear that many low-income children need additional developmental experiences in kindergarten. It is also clear that children who are held back develop a sense of failure that is likely to inhibit their mastery of the skills on which later success depends. How can we reconcile these two seemingly irreconcilable conditions? By doing two things:

  • Adopting the concept of redshirting (even if we don't use the term) as a way to enhance ability rather than underline failure, and
  • Increasing the flexibility of the time periods children spend in the primary grades.
  • As of last September, the Campbell School's kindergarten curriculum has been divided into four stages that were obtained by subdividing the two-part Houghton Mifflin pre-reading course, Ready Steps and Getting Ready to Read. Children proceed through the four steps at their own pace, thus making it possible to take the time needed for each child to master the material. This system also allows for greater achievement and more rapid progress per year than is possible under present "one-year-one-grade" arrangements. In some cases, a child will master all four stages in one school year, while others might need two years. (This change, incidentally, does not require additional funding.)

    This year at Campbell School only the kindergarten has been replaced with the four stages. Next year, the 1st grade will also be subdivided and eventually grades K-3 will no longer exist as such; instead, children will be working on 13 stages, beginning with reading-readiness practice and then proceeding to mastery of the readers currently used in 3rd grade. A child then needn't be locked into a category for a whole year just because he or she needs more time to master a stage. A child who in the first year finishes three of the four stages corresponding to a traditional kindergarten year might well go on to master step four and then all of the stages constituting what is now the 1st grade in the second year--and end up in the same group as his or her age mates by the end of that second year.

    After a semester, the two Campbell School kindergarten teachers and their two aides have determined that their students currently require instruction in three of the four stages. The teachers have easily accommodated themselves to the differences in time required by these children to master the necessary skills, just as teachers everywhere have been accommodating themselves to differences among students in their classes. Traditionally, these differences have been attributed to variations in ability, but I am convinced that differences in time needed to master the skills constitute the more important variable.

    In Atlanta, as in most areas, the school system relies on traditional grade divisions for accounting and operating purposes. Campbell School still counts all students in stages one through four as "kindergartners." But eventually, if the idea takes hold, then school-system authorities will be in a position to see the primary department as a whole when counting heads, thus effectively removing an administrative obstacle to eliminating traditional grade divisions.

    Of course, these ideas are not new. But their success has been confined to the education laboratory or to individual, widely scattered classrooms and schools. Since the current efforts at educational reform emphasize accountability measures, which in turn highlight the concepts of time and failure ("If they can't pass the test at the end of the year, don't let them move ahead"), the widespread adoption of this concept of redshirting kindergartners and revising the grade structure remains unlikely.

    It can happen only if and when we are willing to change the way we think about some of the archaic structures and concepts now burdening the education of many of our children. These changes take time, and if redshirting is ever to become as useful in academics as it is in athletics, it's time to get started in that direction.

    Vol. 04, Issue 17, Page 24

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