Put on your favorite snood and comfy skirt, grab your double stroller and riding toys, and pack some snacks, drinks, and tissues — we’re heading to the park!
Imagine a late summer afternoon. August is winding down and the summer heat seems to be retreating ever so slightly, allowing the occasional breeze to cool the air with a telltale whisper of the approaching fall. The park is busy. Everyone seems to be savoring the last lazy days of summer, letting their kinderlach linger in the park without the hectic constraints of homework and school routines to accelerate the pace of the day. As you settle down on a shaded bench, you overhear the women next to you schmoozing:
Navy Snood– Wow! Your Duvy is playing so nicely with my Chaim. How old is he?
Paisely Pre-Tie– He’s four. Yeah, they’re so cute! Look at how nicely they’re climbing.
Navy Snood– Oh, Chaim is also four! Where are you sending him to cheder?
Paisely Pre-Tie– We’re strongly leaning towards Ateres Dovid, but—
Navy Snood– (Interrupting out of sheer excitement, and now speaking much more quickly) Oh, Amazing! That’s where we’re sending Chaim. This is so great! I’m so happy that he’ll have a friend in the class, we don’t really know so many people sending there, but we heard it was such a great cheder. We should definitely arrange a play date before Elul so they can get to know each other better, and—
Paisely Pre-TieHydrate Part 2- Umm…yeah, what I was saying is that we will probably send him there next year, because we decided he needs another year of gan before starting cheder. His birthday is December 30, so he’d be the youngest in the grade if he started this year…
Navy Snood– (Nodding with understanding, though her bubble has clearly burst) Mmm hmmm…
Paisely Pre-Tie– …and since he’s small for his age as it is, and he was a late talker, we just don’t want him to be behind, you know? Like, it’s always better to be a bit older and more mature when you start school… I think.
Navy Snood– I totally understand. My sister-in-law’s brother’s neighbor did the same exact thing. It’s pretty common.
Paisely Pre-Tie– Yeah, well I think that—
Duvy– Mommy, can I have a drink, please?
• • •
What you just witnessed is an instance of the practice known as redshirting. We’ve all heard conversations like these. Everyone knows someone who’s made the increasingly popular decision to hold a child back a year if he is young relative to the other children in the class. While academic redshirting is a common occurrence in many communities, let’s take a step back to understand where the term comes from, and evaluate the pros and cons of delaying kindergarten.
It’s time for a wardrobe change! Grab your coat and some warm gloves — we’re going to a Canadian ice hockey rink! If you’re wondering what ice hockey has to do with a child’s relative age in terms of starting school, look no further than Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times Best-Selling Book Outliers.
In his well-received book, Gladwell seeks to understand what makes certain people excel to a far greater degree than others. As he puts it, “this is a book about outliers, about men and women who do things that are out of the ordinary… And in examining the lives of the remarkable among us – the skilled, the talented, and the driven – I will argue that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we make sense of success.”
Gladwell provides a glimpse into the world of Canadian hockey to shed some light on the topic. Considered the Canadian national pastime, hockey is taken very seriously north of the border. Many young boys begin playing hockey in youth leagues even before they enter kindergarten, and, as in any true meritocracy, the cream of the crop rises to the top. Those who have honed superior skills through their natural talent and hard work will move their way up through the ranks of hockey leagues. The select few who have earned the distinction of being the best of the best will gain a coveted spot in the highest level of Canadian hockey. “Players are judged on their own performance, not on anyone else’s, and on the basis of their ability, not on some other arbitrary fact. […] Or are they?”
When it comes to extremely successful people, we all optimistically assume that the concept of meritocracy takes effect, that a “hero is born in modest circumstances and by virtue of his own grit and talent fights his way to greatness”. Gladwell shatters this myth with a powerful illustration:
The tallest oak in the forest is the tallest not just because it grew from the hardiest acorn; it is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. We all know that successful people come from hardy seeds. But do we know enough about the sunlight that warmed them, the soil in which they put down the roots, and the rabbits and lumberjacks they were lucky enough to avoid?
In other words, perhaps if we were to take a wider look at the cultural and environmental circumstances surrounding success, we would realize that there are other factors at play besides personal merit.
In the case of ice hockey, Gladwell points to a curious trend: at all levels of Canadian hockey leagues, an overwhelming majority of players are born in the first quarter of the year. In fact, more players are born in January than in any other month of the year. Why? It’s simple. The cut-off for eligibility for age-class hockey is January 1st. “A boy who turns ten on January 2nd, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year – and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.”
Since Canada is so hockey–crazed, the process for grooming national-level players begins at the age of nine or ten. With a slight edge in size and maturity, the older players will receive better coaching and therefore be played in more games, gaining more experience and thus giving them an even larger advantage. A few months difference in age can make the difference between ultimate success or failure. Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsely succinctly describes this cycle: “If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age […] and if you provide the “talented” with a superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cutoff date.”
This gives way to the concept of athletic redshirting. The term comes from an athlete who delayed participation in the University of Nebraska’s football team in order to obtain an advantage, yet still wore the team’s signature red shirt to practice. Yet the reality of the older members of a group achieving greater success is not limited to the hockey rink or football field; we see this advantage at play in the classroom as well, creating the phenomenon known as academic redshirting.
Worth the Wait?
When deciding whether or not to postpone kindergarten, one might wonder if the few months really make a difference in the long run. One might assume that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces might eventually disappear with time. However, Malcolm Gladwell posits, “It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.”
This bias is especially pronounced in schools that separate children into tracks based on academic ability for reading and math. Oftentimes, teachers mistake maturity for intellectual ability, and the children who are a few months older end up in the more advanced groups. Similar to the older athletes that receive better training and more experience, the students in the advanced track can be propelled further than their younger counterparts in a self-perpetuating cycle of better teaching, more attention, and higher performance. This type of success is called “accumulative advantage” by sociologists, as a small edge snowballs into a huge difference in long-term achievement.
Economists Kelly Bedhard and Elizabeth Dhuey conducted a study among fourth-graders that examined the correlation between standardized test scores and month of birth. The results of this study are telling: the older students scored between four and twelve percent higher; an extremely significant difference. Gladwell explains, “if you take two intellectually equivalent fourth-graders with birthdays at opposite ends of the cutoff date, the older student could score in the eightieth percentile, while the younger child could score in the sixty-eighth percentile. That’s the difference between qualifying for a gifted program and not qualifying. “
Dhuey and Bedhard also analyzed birth month at the college level and found that “students belonging to the relatively youngest group in their class are underrepresented by about 11.6 percent.” These studies that reveal that the age bias persists with time validate all who choose to redshirt their children. According to Dhuey, “It’s ridiculous […] that our arbitrary choice of cutoff dates is causing these long-lasting effects, and no one seems to care about them.”
In order to correct this imbalance, Gladwell proposes a unique institutional fix. Since cutoff dates are arbitrary points of separation to begin with, why not then create more grades? He suggests dividing grades into tracks based on birth month so that children are in an environment of peers born in the same quarter, creating a more even playing field. If schools were set up like this, each track would purportedly produce the same rate of successful students without creating an age bias. However, given the complicated administrative task that this solution presents, according to Gladwell’s research, redshirting remains the best option for those borderline birthdays who would end up disadvantaged in the current system.
Don’t Hold Back
On the other side of the spectrum there are studies and theories that suggest that redshirting is not only unnecessary; it can actually be detrimental for both the child in question and the entire classroom environment. Because redshirting has become so common, instead of correcting the age disadvantage for a relatively younger student, the entire age range in the classroom has shifted and most classrooms represent a wider age range as a result.
Sharon Holbrok, a mother of school-aged children, writes in the New York Times regarding her daughter:
“Her kindergarten classroom is likely to have a wider spread of ages and abilities than ever. It may very well include children who are just under 5 years old, who have never been to pre-school and can’t sit still, and in the same room, mature 6-year-olds who are fluently reading chapter books and ready for advanced math. The increased teacher burden, and the effects on the collective learning experience, seem readily apparent.”
Educational psychologist Lori Day echoes these sentiments:
“Teachers will just as quickly tell you that the vicious cycle of kids being older upon entrance, needing more rigorous curriculum, edging out younger students and thus increasing the incidence of redshirting, is not a productive situation. Someone needs to be the youngest, and someone always will be, regardless of the amount of jockeying. The common 18-month age-span in kindergarten classrooms resulting from redshirting also makes it difficult for teachers to manage group behavior and differentiate instruction.
The trend of redshirting severely disadvantages those who do not hold back their younger children. At the same time, the oldest children — those who have been held back — are also losing out by being grouped with students well below their maturity and academic level. Thus, instead of solving one problem, redshirting seems to create many more.
What’s even more troubling is the socioeconomic disparity that comes along with redshirting, giving the distinct advantage to those with more means. In the realm of public school, delaying free kindergarten education necessitates paying for another year of private pre-school. This creates an imbalance in terms of who is able to afford redshirting, allowing more privileged children an even greater edge. Lori Day explains, “This obviously increases the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer school districts, a divide that also often falls along racial lines. “
Another concern with redshirting is that holding a child back a year might mask a special needs issue. In a peer environment of younger students, a developmental delay might not be as apparent. According to Lori Day:
“[Redshirting] is often done disproportionately to children with undiagnosed special needs who at the time were judged to be developmentally behind, but in fact were in need of special education services, not another year to mature. Children with learning disabilities who are redshirted or retained in kindergarten lose any accrued benefit very quickly, and are then simply older children with special needs that still must be addressed.”
Additionally, state-funded kindergartens often provide more special needs services than private preschools. Therefore, students starting kindergarten on time could avail themselves of free testing and therapies offered by the school system.
In addition to anecdotal evidence, there are many studies that find detrimental long-term effects of redshirting on the students who were held back. A study entitled “Too Young to Leave the Nest: The Effects of School Starting Age,” followed a group of Norwegian students born between 1962 and 1988. In an IQ test given to this group when they reached 18 years of age, the children who started school later scored lower than those who started school earlier. Similarly, a study conducted by Peter Fredriksson in Sweden found that starting school later led to reduced earnings later on in life. A 2008 Harvard University study showed the same results: Delaying school entry age decreased graduation rates and income.
In a New Yorker article entitled “Youngest Kid, Smartest Kid?” Maria Konnikova purports, “As it turns out, the benefits of being older and more mature may not be as important as the benefits of being younger than your classmates.” A study performed at Bocconi University finds, “Contrary to most of the existing evidence for younger pupils, we document that at the undergraduate level, youngest students perform better compared with their oldest peers.”
“In the immediate term, being relatively bigger, quicker, smarter, and stronger is a good thing. Repeatedly, the studies have found exactly that—older kindergarten students perform better on tests, receive better teacher evaluations, and do better socially. But then, something happens: after that early boost, their performance takes a nosedive. By the time they get to eighth grade, any disparity has largely evened out—and, by college, younger students repeatedly outperform older ones in any given year” (Konnikova).
Though it seems counterintuitive, the idea that younger children would excel more than their older peers might come down to an attitude of striving and overcoming obstacles. The older, more developed students who succeeded easily in kindergarten and the early grades, never learned to push past their limits. In fact, being the biggest and smartest can be boring and lead to a comfortable stagnation. However, the younger students, in their struggle to keep up, end up cultivating a mindset of dedication, motivation and persistence. Therefore, around eighth grade, when the developmental and maturity differences of those few months dissipate, the students with more grit and determination are the ones who achieve greater success.
What’s a Jew to Do?
If you’re still with me, you’re probably left with more uncertainty about redshirting than ever before. There are compelling arguments backed by sound research on both sides of the argument. On the one hand, you wouldn’t want to put a child into a school environment of older peers if he’s not emotionally, physically and developmentally ready. No one wants their child to be behind and disadvantaged in a classroom environment of more mature students. On the other hand, being the oldest, would he be pulled down by his younger peers? Would a learning disability or delay be ignored? Would he miss out on learning valuable life skills and developing grit by being older, smarter and better from the start?
Going back to Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, as a Jew, I was struck by a line written while discussing the popular view of the “self-made man.” Describing the cultural obsession with attributing success with “the efforts of the individual,” Gladwell writes, “In the Bible, Joseph is cast out by his brothers and sold into slavery and then rises to become the pharaoh’s right-hand man on the strength of his own brilliance and insight.” A Torah Jew can’t read a statement like that without being taken aback by such outright falsehood. We know that Yosef attributed all of his success to Hashem (Bereishis 41:16). So too, in all situations we face, the results are in the hands of Hashem! Understanding the research and pros and cons of redshirting are important factors in decision-making, but as always, the outcome will be determined by Hashem.