Education Opinion

Academic ‘Redshirting’ Two Years Later: The Lessons Learned

By Ralph Frick — January 28, 1987 6 min read

This Commentary is a follow-up to one by Mr. Frick two years ago, in which he argued for academic “redshirting” as way of allowing children extra time to develop their abilities in the early grades. That idea--inspired by a practice in college sports whereby a player may sit out a year to allow time for greater physical development--had just been introduced on a pilot basis in an Atlanta elementary school. In this new essay, the author--who helped design the program--gives his opinion of what the project has shown so far.

When the L.J. Campbell School in Atlanta introduced the concept of “academic redshirting,” those of us involved in the project I were aiming to allow kindergarten children the extra time they needed to master necessary skills, without conveying the sense of failure that usually results when a child repeats a grade.

We used the expression “redshirting,” derived from the athletic term, to help children, parents, and teachers think of the year that some pupils were “held back” as a period of development that would enhance their academic future, rather than dim it (''In Support of Academic Redshirting,” Commentary, Education Week, Jan. 16, 1985). Two years later, I can give an assessment: the successes, failures, and ongoing problems attending the project.

First, some basic figures.

The pilot program began at Campbell in the 1984-85 school year. In June of 1985, the kindergarten class numbered 54, of which 26 children were redshirted. After completing the redshirt year in 1985-86, they entered 1st grade in September 1986. By this time, 8 children had moved out of the neighborhood. Of the remaining 18, half were working at the top of their grade as of late last fall; the other 9 are expected to finish 1st grade successfully by the end of this school year. In the past, many of these children would have already been regarded as failures.

It appears that the children who entered kindergarten in September 1985-the second class to take part in the program-will do even better. All of the redshirts-those who remained in kindergarten for the current school year--will be well into 1st-grade materials by the end of this semester. Some of those who were promoted last June will be redshirted in 1st grade. All of these children will be at or well above the national average by the end of the 2nd grade.

Unfortunately, the project has not been an unqualified success. The children who were not redshirted in the spring of 1985 entered 1st grade in September of that year, but their progress was less than we had hoped. Furthermore, none of them was redshirted in the 1st grade, although in retrospect we realize that some should have been. Some will be redshirted in the 2nd grade, and we expect all of them to be on grade level by the end of 3rd grade.

In January 1985, the Charles R. Drew school--located, like Campbell, in a low-income housing project in Atlanta--also decided to adopt the concept of redshirting in the primary grades. In general, the results at the two schools are very similar.

What, then, have we learned?

First, without a doubt, the indispensable characteristic of successful teachers in low-income-area schools is a positive attitude. It is not enough for a teacher to use the right words. The critical question is, what implicit and explicit messages are students getting from the teacher about their ability to learn? A smiling face and such perfunctory comments as, “That’s very good,” may look positive to an observer. But in countless, subtle ways every day, such a teacher may be sending a message to the students that says, “I don’t really expect you to achieve what other students are achieving.”

We also found that when teachers have a positive attitude, structures matter little. Many of the people who wrote to us about the project after my 1985 Commentary were interested in the 13 steps that constitute the program from kindergarten to grade 3. Some wanted to visit Campbell School to see what we were doing. We had to tell them that were was nothing magical or even innovative about the 13 steps. All of them correspond to an existing book or part of a book in the basal reading series. We are taking a good, solid curriculum provided by the Atlanta Public Schools and implementing it according to the Joplin Plan, in which reading groups are based on needs rather than grade levels.

Any visitor to the Campbell School or the Drew School will see nothing that does not go on in other schools. The factors that make a difference in the children’s education are inside the teachers’ heads. It is their confidence in the children, not their structures and procedures, that make the difference.

We also learned that educators must stop blaming the home. I cannot think of any other profession that is so quick to foist its failures on others. Doctors don’t say that they cannot set a child’s broken leg because the child comes from the wrong kind of home. The problem was summed up well in a letter to the editor from a principal in Cincinnati that appeared in the Oct. 22, 1986, issue of Education Week. She said, in part:

“We have allowed the social problems of poverty, student apathy, and the breakdown of the family to become an excuse for why we cannot teach. . . . Let us concentrate on what schools can do, rather than on developing grandiose plans that require for success some symbolic joining of hands of parents, community, and business.”

We are finding in our project that parents are becoming more involved when they are convinced that their children are achieving and that the teacher really cares. In other words, parent involvement is the result of student achievement and teacher caring, not the cause.

We have had to learn patience. Instant results are a fantasy. As positive as the teachers at Campbell and Drew are, they still show the vestiges of years of conditioning. Like the rest of us, they have been brainwashed into believing that children’s ability can be measured, converted to numbers, and be accurately represented by the normal curve. Some of our teachers still use negative terms like “retainee” and “catch up.” Some still, deep down, want to put the blame on the home. But, little by little, the attitudes are becoming very positive. We continue to use the term “redshirt” to remind everyone to take a positive view toward children who need time to develop.

Another positive term we’re trying to cultivate and apply to all children is “college bound.” Whether or not they all eventually go to college, they should be taught as though they will. This means that teachers can’t be thinking only of the child’s accomplishments at the end of kindergarten or 1st grade. Each teacher must look at the child as a future 5th grader and 9th grader and 12th grader and determine must be done in kindergarten and 1st grade to make that child successful at every level in the future.

There is a story told about a group of people who were attempting to convince Arturo Toscanini to take over an orchestra in the United States. They told him that they already had as the head of the violin section the best violinist in the country. The cello section was led by the best cello player and the trumpet section by the best trumpet player. However, they had to admit that the leader of the clarinet section was not the best in the country, whereupon Mr. Toscanini replied, “By the time I finish with him, he will be.”

Each year, many children enter Campbell and Drew schools. The message from society that accompanies them is that virtually none of these children are college-bound, whereupon the teachers at those schools reply, “By the time we finish with them, they will be.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 1987 edition of Education Week