IN HIS 2008 BLOCKBUSTER, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell makes the case that a person's age relative to his or her cohort is a key predictor of success. That is, the older you are in relation to your peers, the more likely you are to perform at an elite level in sports, to excel in school, and even to attend college. We see this principle applied in college athletics when coaches "redshirt" freshman athletes, allowing them to practice with the team but not play in official games. Redshirting gives younger athletes an additional year to develop skills and extends their playing eligibility, since colleges allow these freshmen five years to attend and compete.
On the other end of the student age spectrum, many parents of preschoolers have bought into this concept, choosing to delay their child's entry into kindergarten for a year--a practice known as academic redshirting. Their justifications parallel those of college coaches: these parents believe that their children need that extra year to develop the necessary skills and maturity to succeed in kindergarten. A redshirted child is a year older at kindergarten entry and thus becomes one of the oldest in his class and remains so throughout his school years, enjoying the presumed advantages of age.
Preschools and elementary schools often recommend redshirting, asserting that it bestows the "gift of extra time," but parents should take such advice with a grain of salt. After all, a preschool stands to gain financially from the practice, since the school will likely capture another year's tuition. And elementary schools may also have mixed motives: older children are easier to teach and they perform at higher levels, just by virtue of being older. In other words, older children make the school's job a little bit easier.
How should parents decide whether they should enroll their child in kindergarten when he is first eligible or hold him back for a year? In this article, we draw upon our combined experience--Schanzenbach as an education researcher and Larson as a preschool director--to provide some practical, evidence-based advice. Notably, we find that Larson's take on the issue, formed by 14 years of experience with preschoolers and their parents, accords perfectly with Schanzenbach's conclusions based on academic studies: redshirting is generally not worth it.
Despite the weightiness of the decision, rest assured that a child is likely to be successful whichever path his parents choose. We know dozens of families who have redshirted their children and have been perfectly happy with the outcome. On the other hand, in most instances there is a good case to be made for resisting the pressure--not only from schools but sometimes from other parents as well--and sending a child to school when he is first age-eligible.
We recognize that deciding whether or not to redshirt a preschooler is difficult. Parents want what's best for their children now and in the future, and they have to make the kindergarten-enrollment decision with limited and uncertain information. The concerns that...