By Richard V. Reeves
In a recent Atlantic article, “Redshirt the Boys” I argue that boys should start school a year later than girls, on the grounds that on average they mature more slowly. This is one of a number of proposals to create a more male-friendly education system described in my new book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It (Brookings Institution Press, 2022).
Delaying kindergarten entry by year is often dubbed “redshirting,” a term borrowed from a practice in collegiate sports, where a first-year student athlete practices with their team but is held out of regular competition for a season.
There’s mixed evidence on the impact of redshirting, and for sure any move in this direction would need careful pilot study and evaluation. But to the extent that there are advantages flowing from a delayed school start, it is important to understand the current patterns of redshirting. In this piece I describe the existing evidence of the prevalence and patterns of redshirting, especially in light of what appears to have been a spike during the pandemic.
The overall picture from previous studies is that rates of redshirting are higher for white boys from affluent backgrounds. Given that it is boys from less advantaged backgrounds who seem to gain the most from a delayed start, this may raise questions in terms of equality of opportunity.
Some school districts, including New York City’s, have forbidden redshirting on equity grounds. An alternative would be to go in the other direction, enabling and encouraging the lower income parents to have more opportunity for a delayed start in school for their children.
When are students supposed to start school?
Most states require children to attend at least half-day kindergarten in the school year after their fifth birthday. But states and school district policies vary widely, and many offer exemptions for parents who want to enroll their children in public school either earlier or later than the default age. Oklahoma, for instance, requires children to enroll in half-day kindergarten in the school year after they turn five (September 1 birthday cutoff), but parents are allowed to delay their child’s kindergarten entry by a year at their own discretion by submitting a form. By contrast, New York City public school children must attend kindergarten in the calendar year of their fifth birthday, and parents are not allowed to elect to delay their child’s kindergarten entry. In many states, the rules about school entry are made by individual school districts.
Private schools, by contrast, can set their own rules and exemptions when it comes to the age of school entry (including in places like New York City), and often offer a great deal of flexibility – especially in terms of a preference for a delayed entry. The option to delay school entry varies greatly, then, between different states and school districts, and between public and private schools.
Who chooses to redshirt?
Parents who have the option to redshirt often choose to do so. In a 2021 survey conducted by Morning Consult and Ed Choice, 12 percent of parents with school-age children report having redshirted a child. It important to note here that some of these parents had children expected to enter kindergarten during the pandemic. The main reasons given were that their child would have been “too young for their grade,” was “not emotionally ready,” or “not academically ready” or “the Covid-19 pandemic.” (Parents could choose multiple reasons.) For comparison, just six percent of parents in the survey whose children are over eighteen reported having redshirted a child in the same survey. Interestingly, the share of redshirters surveyed at the same time was even higher — 15 percent — among teachers with school-age children.
The Morning Consult/Ed Choice survey has the advantage of being recent. But it does not have information on which kinds of parents chose to delay kindergarten entry. To get a picture of which families redshirt, we describe here data from the most recent large-scale US survey capturing detailed information about kindergarten delay and student attributes: the 2010-11 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which surveys over 18,000 families of kindergarteners. (This is the most recent year for which data is available.) We then focus on differences in redshirting rates by student gender and the families most likely to redshirt their sons.
Which kindergarteners are redshirted?
In the 2010-11 school year, six percent of first-time kindergarteners were redshirted. But some children were much more likely to be redshirted than others, as Figure 1 shows.
The overall picture is clear. Children from more affluent homes, and/or with more educated parents are much more likely to be redshirted. White or Asian children are more likely to be redshirted compared to Black or Hispanic children, and boys are more likely to be redshirted than girls (see below). Rates are also higher in private compared to public schools.
There is evidence that a delayed start is especially valuable for children from a less advantaged background, including research from Elizabeth Cascio and Diane Schanzenbach. As they write: “These results—stronger age effects for low-income students—stand in contrast to the observed patterns in which higher-income children are substantially more likely to be redshirted.”
High socioeconomic-status families are more likely able to afford an additional year of childcare before kindergarten, and they are likely more willing and able to navigate school district bureaucratic processes to secure their child’s spot in a later kindergarten cohort. Indeed, in the 2010-11 cohort, children from families above 200 percent of the poverty line were over 50 percent more likely to be redshirted than their peers from poor families.
Similarly, kindergarteners who had a parent with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 64 percent more likely to be redshirted than kindergartners whose parents did not have a bachelor’s degree (8.2 percent and 5.0 percent, respectively). Students enrolled in private schools were also more likely to be redshirted than their public-school counterparts (8.4 percent and 6.0 percent).
Redshirting rates also differ by race and ethnicity. White families were about twice as likely to redshirt their kindergarteners than Black and Hispanic families. Nearly eight percent (7.8 percent) of white students and 6.4 percent of Asian students were redshirted, compared to 3.5 percent of Black students and 4.0 percent of Hispanic students. In general, the children currently most likely to be redshirted are not lagging academically. In fact, the children who are redshirted have slightly higher reading and math scores, prior to starting school, than their peers who entered on time.
Boys on a different timeline
Parents were more likely to delay their boys’ kindergarten entry than their girls’ (7.3 percent compared to 5.2 percent). For every 100 redshirted girls in the 2010-11 kindergarten class, there were 148 redshirted boys.
In elite private schools the gap may be even wider. For obvious reasons, data by school is hard to come by here. But one prestigious East Coast private K-12 school (which preferred not to be named) shared the birth dates of their graduating seniors. Almost one in three of the boys (30 percent) were born before October 2003, the formal cut-off date for school entry for that year, compared to seven percent of the girls. This could, of course, be because the boys were more likely to have been held back a grade. But it seems more likely that intentional redshirting is the explanation, especially for a cohort largely from a highly affluent, highly educated background.
According to an analysis of the 2010-11 data, redshirted boys were especially likely to have college-educated parents, a summer birthday, or both. One in ten boys whose parents have a bachelor’s degree and more than one in ten boys with a summer birthday were redshirted. When both factors are combined, the rate is even higher: one in five summer-born boys with college-educated parents were redshirted.
Those with classroom experience are even more likely to redshirt their sons relative to their daughters. While parents in 2010-12 were 42 percent more likely to redshirt their sons than daughters, teachers were three times more likely to report delaying entry for their sons than their daughters in a recent RAND survey.
Conclusion: Craft policy carefully
The flexibility to delay kindergarten entry may benefit kids, often boys, who could use the extra year to catch up developmentally. This raises important questions of equity. As described above, some policymakers worried about the implications for equality of opportunity have banned delayed kindergarten entry. But this seems short-sighted. For one thing, parents with means can always opt out of the public system and choose a private school, where attitudes towards redshirting are much more positive and flexible. And when neighboring school districts offer much more parental choice and flexibility, it is not clear that isolated bans will have the desired effects.
It is obviously important to craft policy carefully here. Outright bans on delayed entry seem like a blunt tool at best. It is not immediately obvious why parents who choose public schools, or who live in certain school districts, should have fewer opportunities to consider the needs of their children than parents who pay for private schools or live a few miles away. The challenge here is to find approaches that can bring the greatest educational benefits to the children that need it most – especially boys from less advantaged backgrounds.
 Estimate based on 528 respondents to the RAND teacher survey (of 1,000) who reported having delayed or not delayed their child’s kindergarten entry; 60 reported having delayed kindergarten entry for at least one child.
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