Engineering the Perfect Kindergarten
by Elizabeth Graue - September 13, 2006
Each fall thousands of children begin their journey through formal schooling as they enter kindergarten. This ritual is represented in children’s books, newspaper articles, and weepy conversations of parents as they leave their babies at the bus stop. But a significant number of children have this transition delayed because someone has decided that they are not quite ready to begin school. Who are these children and why are they stuck at the kindergarten door? In this commentary I explore the mythology and research about academic redshirting, outlining the gaps between research and practice as well as the assumptions that motivate action.
I still see his face as he tells me he doesnt want a birthday party at school. As his kindergarten teacher, Im taken aback. Ive never known a kindergartner who didnt want a birthday party. When I ask him why, he tells me that he doesnt want anyone to know he is going to be seven. The triumph of turning six is lost hes just too old. I had forgotten that Alex had been held out of kindergarten.
Each fall thousands of children begin their journey through formal schooling as they enter kindergarten. This ritual is represented in childrens books, newspaper articles, and weepy conversations of parents as they leave their babies at the bus stop. But a significant number of children have this transition delayed because someone has decided that they are not quite ready to begin school. If the number of emails and telephone calls I receive as a researcher who studies readiness is an indication of prevalence, kindergarten entry is anything but automatic. Who are these children and why are they stuck at the kindergarten door?
A growing research base addresses these questions, speaking to the concerns of parents and teachers who recognize the academic and symbolic importance of kindergarten. Delay of entry has even developed its own name, academic redshirting, after the college football practice that defers eligibility for intercollegiate play for freshmen players. For parents who live in communities where redshirting is popular, it seems like everyone is doing it and no one wants to be on the outside looking in. Researchers, however, have delimited the trends somewhat, describing redshirts as approximately 9% of the population, more likely to be white middle class boys who are the youngest in their age cohort (Graue & DiPerna, 2000; Lincove & Painter, 2006; West, Meek, & Hurst, 2000).
Is redshirting simply a strategy for accommodating the needs of children who develop at different rates? Or more perniciously, does redshirting feed a voracious machine that pushes the kindergarten curriculum faster and faster? A recent Newsweek cover story The New First Grade: Are Kids Getting Pushed Too Fast, Too Soon? (Tyre, 2006) highlights this concern with stories of schools where 40% of kindergartners are redshirted and quotes like kindergarten was brutal. Hardly the childs garden of my memory.
The mythology around redshirting sounds a bit like Lake Wobegon. The children would be confident leaders, at least average in size, whizzes with scissors and able to take all school demands in stride. They would outshine their peers, particularly those who share a dreaded summer birthday but entered kindergarten on time. Is that what we get? Researchers have attempted to address the expected results of redshirting through a variety of study designs and data sources but the major stumbling block is the nature of the expectation for choosing these interventions. Some might argue that redshirting is used to level the playing fieldstandardizing the inputs of education so that the outputs are less varied. Others could assert that it is the strategy of choice for a privileged few to provide advantage to individuals, in effect exacerbating the range in a given group of children. The qualitative work that examines parent justification for redshirting indicates a complex mixture of the two concern about the small shy boy who is not quite as developed as his peers and assertions that a parents job is to provide any advantage to her child (Graue, Kroeger, Brown, 2003). As a result, redshirts are a more diverse group than might be indicated by their demographic characteristics . They include:
Children with normal but slow maturation who will catch up with their age group by about age eight,
Children with developing disabilities that will benefit from intervention services,
Children who will always color outside the lines even as adults, (these are the children who roll around on the carpet during story time in kindergarten and who throw wads of paper across the room into the garbage can at faculty meetings)
And children who are redshirted because of parent beliefs. These decisions are often made even before a child is born and are related to hopes that the child will be on the varsity football team or that s/he will be the oldest in a peer group and therefore be less likely to be led astray by more mature friends.
In this context, identifying a comparison group for empirical studies of redshirting is a challenge. Researchers have employed three strategies: redshirts are compared to children in their age group who enter on time, to children in the same grade who have different birth dates, or a combination of agemates and grademates (Stipek 2002). Each contrast group has its strengths and weakness, including differences in opportunity to learn, selection biases, and relative benefits.
Even if we nail down the comparison groups for research, the issue of measures remains. Are we looking for academic or social skills? At what point in time? Reported through what measures? And is it enough to be even with peers or is above average achievement the goal? The empirical work indicates that initial advantages in both social and academic measures fade by grade three where accumulated opportunity to learn outweighs relative maturity. Being redshirted does not provide immunity from all schooling difficulties, with redshirts having higher than expected placement in special education and higher levels of discipline problems and social and emotional problems. In the research on redshirting, everyone seems to be searching for a different answer if academic measures are provided, critics note that redshirting is about social readiness. If achievement at grade three is provided naysayers suggest that you really want a measure in middle or high school. In this muddled world of expectations and research, people appear to treat evidence like junk mail they sort through it, keeping what they think is good and pitching the rest (Hays, 1996). Research about redshirting is about someone elses children, easily discarded in a context of personal experience, social pressure, and wanting only success for children.
In all the hubbub about redshirting, its compelling stories of parent decisions and kindergarten triumph, we ignore kindergartens dirty little secretkindergarten retention. In the old playground discourse where the insult depicts deep cultural values, the ultimate insult is He was so stupid he flunked kindergarten! Kindergarten retainees, like their peers in other grades, tend to be poorer, to have had early developmental delay, to be African-American. And like their peers in other grades, simply repeating the same treatment again does not solve achievement problems. Student achievement continues to lag, special education services are more likely, social-emotional problems are more prevalent, and drop out risk is heightened. That story is troublesome enough but if juxtaposed against redshirting, it is even more striking. In many studies the outcomes of redshirts and retainees are placed side by side, implicitly compared, with the quiet sense that it is better to be redshirted at least then families are choosing an intervention with less bad outcomes. The practices of redshirting and retention enact deeply held assumptions about the ability of families to enhance their childrens readiness: middle class families presumably have resources to help their children build readiness, but poor kids must be better off in school sooner, even if it means that they will fail. These assumptions play out in poignant ways for children when Jamel, just five and coming out of half day Head Start meets Justin, almost seven, who has been in a university preschool laboratory since he was 12 months and spent his redshirt year on sabbatical in France. The combination of cultural capital and maturation illuminates a gap that is almost insurmountable. Jamel is behind and Justin is ahead before the school year starts. Reminds me of that Billy Holiday song, God Bless the Child. Them thats got shall get, them that not shall lose. . .
What is research and practice about redshirting and retention all about? It might be about our response to variability in development and whether schools or individual children should bear the burden for responding to perceived deviations from the norm. It might be about whether kindergarten is about personal acceleration or the ecology of the group. It might be a vestige of kindergartens liminal position in the elementary school program, virtually universal but still officially optional. Or it might be a metaphor for the forces of class in todays society. Whatever it is, these practices are taken up in a context that now requires most kindergartners to read at some level by the end of the year because that makes it more likely that they will be reading in first grade. This has kindergarten teachers bemoaning the lack of time available for play, and leads to hours dedicated to homework for five and six year olds. The gaps between research and practice that make it so easy for parents, teachers, and policymakers to support redshirting and retention will remain until we make kindergarten a place for all children, not just those who try to engineer the perfect kindergarten. Shouldnt we want more for Jamel, Justin, and Alex?
Graue, M. E., & DiPerna, J. C. (2000). The gift of time: Who gets redshirted and retained and what are the outcomes? American Educational Research Journal, 37(2), 509-534.
Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Lincove, J. A., & Painter, G. (2006). Does the age that children start kindergarten matter? Evidence of long-term educational and social outcomes. Educational Evaluation & Policy Analysis, 28(2), 153-179.
Stipek, D. (2002). At what age should children enter kindergarten? A question for policy-makers and parents. Social Policy Reports, 16, 3-13.
Tyre, P. (September 11, 2006). The new first grade: Too much, too soon? Newsweek, p. 34-44.
West, J., Meek, A., & Hurst, D. (2000). Children who enter kindergarten late or repeat kindergarten: Their characteristics and later school performance. Education Statistics Quarterly, 2(3).