The bizarre practice of red-shirting in elementary schools

A friend sent me a piece from the website Fatherly this morning, Kindergarten Redshirting: The Complicated World of Holding Preschoolers Back. From the article:

There’s a growing trend of parents choosing to hold their children back in preschool for another year and delay their entry into kindergarten. In most states, if a child turns five by September 1st, they’re in kindergarten that year. Some states have the cut-off as December 1st. In states and cities where it’s legal, parents who fall close to that cut-off date may decide to hold their child back for another year before they enter kindergarten. 

“Redshirting”, as it’s known, is most often discussed in the context of college sports. “Redshirted” freshman can participate in practices, but don’t get on the field to play until their Sophomore year, This gives these young athletes an extra year of preparation to ensure they’re as ready for the field as possible. That this practice trickled down to five-year-olds speaks to the pressures of early education and what parents do to give their kids a fair shot. 

Redshirting has become a solution to this growing concern. But there’s the question of whether or not it does, in fact, help children as well as the issue that it’s only a solution available to those who can afford it in the first place.

As Elia, a mom of six from Pennsylvania who recently decided to hold back her youngest, put it, “Kindergarten is the new first grade.” The rise of redshirting has coincided with what parents and experts refer to as the “academization of kindergarten.” No longer a place for unstructured play and nap time, many kindergartens have shifted into a real classroom, where kids are expected to learn cursive and already know how to read. That leaves parents whose children just make that age cut-off face the decision of sending them into a tougher, more academically kindergarten. 

I found the whole article somewhat hilarious, starting with the notion that kindergarten has become too difficult. This is a country where a large fraction of public high school graduates are not prepared for college-level work. If anything, the whole system is coddling kids too much. Kindergarten is not some Spartan proving ground.

Much like everything on the Interwebs these days, the article is driven by identity politics. The author suggests that wealthy (read: white) parents are gaming the education system by holding their kids back a year from starting kindergarten. Got that? Being a grade behind your peers is a socioeconomic advantage available mostly to wealthy white people now.

But it’s bizarre what this “red-shirting” advantage supposedly entails. The advantage does not come from being better than one’s peers academically, but by artificially moving the kid to another cohort where they can be perceived as a top student. And only “rich” people can pull this maneuver off, because they are the ones who do not need to enroll their kids in elementary school as early as possible as a form of taxpayer-funded child care.

Historically, the upper crust sent their children to private schools so they could receive a stronger, more challenging education than what is offered in public schools. Instead of holding their children back, their kids were doing college-level work in high school and had a litany of extracurricular activities pushed on them. But these families felt their children legitimately needed these experiences, because they were being groomed for elite colleges and then elite professional positions.

If you shop for curriculum, you will see a tremendous gap between the academic programs that private schools use and what public schools use. Kids are reading classic literature in elementary school. They start a foreign language alongside English. Algebra is introduced alongside basic math.

When I read articles like this, all I can think of is the intellectual gap that now exists between people with different education philosophies (as opposed to demographics). You have suburban mothers that evidently think there is some advantage for their kids to be learning at a remedial level and then you have tiger moms in private schools and homeschooling who are pushing their kids ever higher as academic materials get better and better. The latter started off with an academic head start just based on curriculum. If you add in “red-shirting,” the academic differences are probably equivalent to several grades from the very beginning.

Imagine being a college admissions officer in ten years. School choice is becoming more popular and you have more families that are choosing academic excellence over what is easy. And then you have another group that thinks they have gamed the system by doing less for their kids. It’s bonkers.

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