Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

In school, there is a standard curriculum that is offered to all learners who are grouped according to age. This is an antiquated system, but it is the way we have been doing it since the industrial revolution, and—as I’ve written before, changing that system is not happening. Instead, it seems, it’s being exacerbated. On a recent edition of “60 Minutes,” Morley Safer examined the practice of redshirting children for kindergarten. Redshirting is defined at the beginning of the interview as “holding your 5-year old back from kindergarten until he’s 6 so he’ll be among the oldest and smartest in class.” One parent elaborated that she preferred her son be older in kindergarten so he would become a leader rather than be younger and a follower. All this was news to me—older equals smarter and leader.

Safer suggests that a sharp increase in redshirting is a direct response by parents to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers.” I was disturbed by this book when I read it, not because of Gladwell’s premises as much as by his conclusions. Gladwell’s comments on this show make me even more appalled. In January 2010, I quoted from the book regarding Gladwell’s observation that smart children studied by Lewis Terman who happened to be poor did not “make a name for themselves” as adults because “they lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world.” Gladwell saw them as squandered talent and I agree with him that they didn’t need to be.

Redshirting, however, is not helping poor children but most likely putting them at greater disadvantage. As the show pointed out, low-income parents can neither afford to hold their children back nor to send them to private schools. Redshirting is not “putting a community around them.”

I agree with Samuel Meisels, President of the Erikson Institute, who on the show calls redshirting “educational quackery.” I believe in “cumulative advantage” but not in the way Gladwell defines it. Cumulative advantage does not imply that older is better or that the older a child the greater his or her leadership potential. It means carefully planning special, supplemental educational experiences, starting early in school and continuing into college, graduate school, and professional life. It means studying deeply and broadly. It happens when students are introduced purposefully to concepts, programs, activities, career possibilities, and people, who in turn introduce them to more and more possibilities until the right one clicks. It happens when their learning activities are aligned with their interests, abilities, and motivations.

I agree with Meisels that children need a level playing field and that they develop at different rates. It is true that cumulative advantage is about being in the right place at the right time, and that it usually does not happen by coincidence. Ideally, we would be putting all children in the right place at the right time. The only way we are going to prevent the kind of squandered talent that Gladwell deems unfortunate is to open more and more doors of opportunity.

At its foundation, educational opportunity should not mean forcing all kids to learn the same curriculum at the same pace and with the same strategies—whatever their age. Let them start at age 3 if they are ready and a kindergarten classroom is where they’ll best develop. Let them start at age 6 if they are not ready and a delayed start will mean a better fit with the learning environment when they are ready.

May bullying and boredom never become a part of the conversation! Oh, my mistake, Meisels pointed out that behavioral problems and boredom are already being detected in these opposite-of-pushed children. I’ll not go there—for now.

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One response to “Redshirting: How to Make a Bad System Worse

  1. My daughter was born on Sept. 1st, the cutoff here. A lot of summer babies are redshirted in this area but I sent my daughter on time. Everyone lectured me on confidence, being the youngest and being a follower, not a leader, well her Kindy teacher always commented on how she is quick to help other kids and shows a lot of leadership in the classroom. She is now in 1st grade. I don’t regret sending her on time. If anything, I would like her to be in 2nd grade. She is ahead in emotional maturity. She sees her 1st grade classmates running around crazy and turns to me and says: “can’t they just sit down and have a conversation”? The kids she sits with at lunch, the kids she plays with at recess, are all a grade above her. Academically, she is currently doing 3rd grade work, while math is on 4th grade. She even leads her 2nd grade friends, and is a member of the student government at her school, and is a leader there too. The principal told me that she doesn’t give other kids a chance to lead, and that nobody leads like her. If I redshirted her it would be a nightmare so I’m glad I didn’t. But some children do benefit from waiting, and it should depend on each individual child, not their birthdays.

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