Kindergarten Redshirting

Does kindergarten redshirting lie at the crossroads of overly academic kindergarten and anxiety parenting?

First, I want to say that my rebuke of forcing summer birthday boys, or anyone who is within range of “average,” to be held back from kindergarten to wait until they mature, like I did last night in this piece on “60 Minutes,” is not a judgment on parents who choose to do so. I think we can all agree that many of us suffer from too much worrying and hand-wringing already: I see parents struggling at the grocery store over which snacks to buy, which toys are appropriate, which preschool is the best “fit,” and my own conversations every day over food and discipline and related items make me wonder if we’ve all gone completely insane. What I do not want to do is put oxygen on another fiery parenting debate. What I would like to do is start a conversation that eases, not stokes, anxieties about student achievement and the popular cultural phenomenon known as “boys are too immature for kindergarten.”

Is redshirting a way to engineer complete success, to make sure that all children are leaders, sports heroes, that all get straight A’s? In today’s hyperfocus on how success in life begins before preschool, are we taking the issue too far – while leaving parents who cannot afford to do so in the dust? What’s the right thing to do about kindergarten redshirting?

I do not claim to know the answer. But there are several points that speak to me, both intellectually and emotionally, that deserve a look.

  • At its best, redshirting kindergartners is inequitable: for those who cannot afford to send their kids to another year of preschool (which in nearly all 50 states is private and must be paid for), on-time kindergarten entrance is a must that eases the financial burdens of poorer families. This puts the child who enters school on time sometimes a full 18 months behind the oldest children in class (this was pointed out nicely in the “60 Minutes” piece). Might the age and experience difference of the students skew test scores and exacerbate the achievement gap between rich and poor? As Gladwell points out, the kids who are being held back are actually the least at-risk for failure.
  • Someone always has to be the youngest, the shortest, the least experienced. Even if everyone moved their child back to enter kindergarten at age six, there would still be the kids who turn six just days before kindergarten begins. There is no way to “protect” everyone from being at the young end of the spectrum, so why are we bothering to do it at all?
  • I have heard from many parents about this issue over the last several years, since I wrote the original essay, and what distresses me most about the redshirting issue is the idea that boys are “immature.” I find this questionable, because 50 years ago boys were at the heads of all the classes, they got the most attention, they had better grades, more went to college, etc. So maybe it’s not that boys or girls are getting more or less mature, but we are viewing them through a different lens. Scholar Kathleen Cleveland thinks so, and she has written extensively on how to teach boys, especially those who struggle in school. She also debunks the myth, supported by her own research, that there is no boy crisis – that boys, when in a supportive environment, do well, as do girls. But, like the preschool my own son attended, there was an obvious prejudice against the way boys are – my son’s teacher cited thumb sucking and doing silly songs and dances (at four!) as logical reasons to hold him back from kindergarten, although he was fully reading – and a teacher who told me that girls are fine in kindergarten because they can “sit still.”
  • I think that a lot of school problems can come back to testing, but this is yet another glitch in our all-accountability testing culture: the pressure to have children do well is immense. This flows backwards, to little or no recess, to kindergarten and preschool homework, to kindergarten redshirting. It’s difficult to blame parents for wanting their child to succeed, when the standards and expectations to do well are increasing at a rapid and sometimes silly rate.

What do you think? What do you think about being a part in helping eliminate the achievement gap? Or have more Montessori-style mixed age classrooms?