In pre-schools and on playgrounds parents are asking: Is my child ready for kindergarten, or would it be better to wait another year? More and more, they’re deciding to wait.
Yet there’s little evidence that holding children back actually helps. On average, kids who get held back don’t learn more, or find better jobs, than kids who start on time. But they may have other advantages, including in sports.
How many kids are held back?
Many more than in the past.
A generation ago, virtually all 5-year-olds went to kindergarten and all 6-year-olds went to first grade. But no longer. Today, about 20 percent of 6-year-olds in the United States are sitting in kindergarten classrooms.
Some part of this increase comes from the fact that school districts have adjusted their cutoff dates for new students. But the majority of the change reflects a growing penchant to hold kids back.
Does it work?
Various studies have tried to tease out the value of holding kids back — or “redshirting” them, as it’s sometimes called. What they found is that the benefits are relatively small and generally pretty short-lived.
For instance, while it’s true that kids who are held back tend to outperform classmates on academic tests, that’s not because they’re learning more. It’s because they’re older. Once you control for age, the performance boost disappears.
Are there any advantages?
The biggest impact may happen outside the classroom, on soccer fields, baseball diamonds, and hockey rinks.
In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell noted that Canadian hockey players are surprisingly likely to have birthdays early in the year. “Freakonomics” authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner found a similar pattern among European soccer players. The explanation they point to is that Jan. 1 is a common cutoff date for youth sports in Europe and Canada.
Kids born just after a cutoff date are not only older than their fellow competitors, they tend to be a bit bigger and more coordinated. And because they’re bigger and more coordinated, they get more playing time, which means more opportunities to develop their skills, which keeps them in the starting lineup. And since kids who are held back tend to be older, they may gain a similar athletic advantage.
One reason this same feedback loop doesn’t apply in the classroom is that there is no starting lineup. Older kids and late-bloomers have roughly the same opportunity to practice and improve.
Is there a disadvantage to being held back?
Holding kids back involves a kind of tradeoff. Yes, your child gets an extra year to develop before starting school, but that also means he (it’s mostly boys) will graduate from high school one year late, which means he’ll graduate from college one year late, which means he’ll lose one year in the workforce. And while one year of work experience may not seem all that significant, it does make a difference in lifetime earnings.
Does this mean parents should stop holding kids back?
Not necessarily. There are a lot of reasons to wait an extra year before kindergarten, and some kids may not be ready for the structure and demands of a kindergarten classroom.
However, if you’re hoping to gain a long-term advantage for your child, you should probably reconsider. The evidence suggests it won’t work.
More than that, holding kids back can create a vicious circle. As the Harvard education economist David Deming has put it: “Someone has to be the youngest in the class. And so if everyone whose child is born in August holds their kid back a year, then everyone whose child is born in July is going to say, ‘Wow, my kid is the youngest in the class,’ and hold them back. And then everyone whose child is born in June is going to do the same thing.”
Full disclusure: Both of my kids were born in June, and neither was held back. But I myself spent two years in kindergarten.
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Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz