Early Childhood

‘Redshirt’ Your Kids? Study Adds Fuel to a Complicated Debate

By Christina A. Samuels — August 21, 2017 4 min read
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Many parents spent the summer months deciding if they should send their young-for-grade children to kindergarten on time, or if—borrowing a term from college athletics—they should “redshirt” them for a year, ensuring that they’ll be among the oldest in their classes.

A working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research lends credence to the idea that children who are older-for-grade receive a measurable edge compared to their younger classmates over the long term‐they have higher test scores, are more likely to attend college, and are less likely to spend time in the juvenile justice system.

The researchers looked at children in Florida, which has a robust data set on its students and a Sept. 1 cut-off date for children to enroll in kindergarten. The researchers compared children who were born in August and therefore are newly-minted 5-year-olds when school starts, to children who were born in September and start school when they are almost 6.

The difference in test scores between these “young” 5-year-olds and “old” 5-year-olds was remarkably stable, the study found, at about two-tenths of a standard deviation. That’s equivalent to about 40 SAT points on a 1600-point scale, the researchers said, or about the same as the difference in one-year learning gains between having a very strong teacher as opposed to an average one, according to a 2010 study on teacher effectiveness.

This difference held true even when the researchers took a look at siblings who were born in August compared to September, and it was also the same regardless of gender.

But one of the study’s authors said that paper, which has yet to undergo peer review, should not be taken as a green light to hold a child out of school for a year. First, the study was not set up to measure the impact of that practice, said Krzysztof Karbownik, a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University. And redshirting has potential downsides of its own, including one less year in the labor force for the child who is held back. In a different study, researchers have estimated that impact at $80,000 for a college-educated man who retires at age 67.

“On average, it is the case that August-born children are going to do slightly worse than September-born children, but this has no implication that Mr. Smith should redshirt their perfectly fine kid to give them an extra edge,” Karbownik said. “There are real costs to them.”

In the National Bureau of Economics Research paper, the researchers also used data in a large, unnamed Florida county to analyze longer-term effects. In contrast to some other studies, this analysis found that the impact of being older-for-grade does not fade out over time. For example, September-born children—those who are old-for-grade—are 2.1 percent more likely to attend college compared to their August-born classmates, 3.3 percent more likely to graduate from college, and 7.2 percent more likely to graduate from a competitive or selective college.

They are also 15.4 percent less likely to be incarcerated for juvenile crime before their 16th birthday. These longer-run outcomes appear to be stronger among white children than minority children, the researchers found.

The ‘Redshirting’ Decision

But if this information shouldn’t be used to drive a parent to hold their child back one year, what should parents do? Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, wrote an article for the magazine Education Next earlier this year arguing that redshirting should not become a normal practice. The recent paper does not change her view, she said.

“My kindergartener is young for grade, so this is a topic that I’m super into for lots of reasons, and not just for research,” Schanzenbach said.

Parents have to think about their individual children, rather than try to squeeze them into a statistical analysis, she said. For example, her daughter thrives on striving to do the same things as her older siblings. Going to school with children who are a few months older will give her peers to look up to. Children with a similar personality might be bored if they are surrounded with younger classmates, she said.

Schanzenbach’s paper also estimated the labor market effects on holding a child back one year. And her article, based on other studies, argues that the benefits to holding a child back are small and lessen over time.

Schanzenbach’s research notes that about 12 percent of boys with a summer birthday are redshirted by their parents, though that rate shoots up to about 20 percent of boys whose parents have completed college. Children with summer birthdays are likely to be among the youngest in their classes because most states require kindergartners to be 5 years old by the beginning or end of September.

Parents are filled with anxiety over when to have their children start school, said Schanzenbach, who said she has received more responses to that article than to anything else she has written. Still, 4 out of 5 summer-born boys with college-educated parents are starting school on time, Schanzenbach notes.

“They’re going to be OK,” Schanzenbach said. “That’s my mantra. You know your kid best, do you what you think is in his or her best interest regarding redshirting, and it’s going to be OK.”

File Photo: Kindergarten students visit classrooms at Fallsmead Elementary School in Rockville, Md. in 2016.‐Erin Irwin/Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.