"We would like to think that [with] this evidence, parents would feel a little less anxiety."
The Outliers and the 2006 study are often credited with putting redshirting on the public's radar. But some experts say its origins trace back as far as the 1980s, amid increases to kindergarten-age requirements and shifts in parenting culture. Up until then, kindergarten was seen as a lighthearted environment where youngsters would be engaged in playful, creative activities while being gradually acclimated to basic academic topics (such as shapes and colors) and skills (holding a pencil and using glue). Kindergarten attendance still isn't required in 35 states, and nearly a fourth of kindergartners nationwide are only enrolled in half-day programs. Despite all that, early-childhood education has become a source of some of the most polemical debates surrounding American schooling.
The emphasis on high-stakes testing of education-reform initiatives such as No Child Left Behind exacerbated what researchers in 1988 identified as escalating academic demand in kindergarten classrooms. In part because of those public-policy changes, though also because of fiscal incentives and mindset changes, more and more states started moving up their cutoff dates. In 1975, just nine states required students to be 5 by the start of the school year; by 2005, the number had grown to 33. Data from 2008 shows that 17 percent of children entering kindergarten that year were 6 years or older.
Arguments for redshirting abound in academic journals, opinion pages, and parenting forums; arguments attempting to debunk those theories are almost just as widespread. On top of a slew of academic studies, it's been the subject of multiple posts in The New York Times "Motherlode" blog, as well as The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and ABC's Good Morning America, among others. The Huffington Post even has an entire landing page devoted to the topic. It's clear that parents (and educators and economists and policymakers) want a verdict on the merits of the practice.
There are scholars who echo Gladwell's conclusions, arguing, for example, that relatively young students are disproportionately diagnosed with learning disabilities or more likely to underperform on standardized tests. Yet there are other scholars who contend that relatively older students are more likely to drop out of high school or commit a felony offense by age 19, or that they tend to have slightly lower overall educational attainment. One study, meanwhile, found that age diversity in kindergarten classrooms is beneficial in itself; relatively young students, it suggested, have better outcomes when they're learning alongside relatively older peers.
A study published in the journal Contemporary Economic Policy offers perhaps the latest piece of evidence that redshirting is little more than a silly fad — or, as one pair of economists put it in 2009, a "suburban legend." The study, by Cornell's Kevin Kniffin and Ohio State's Andrew Hanks, looks at whether redshirting influences the likelihood that a child will eventually obtain a Ph.D. The fact that this degree is held by less than 2 percent of the U.S. population makes it a meaningful metric, the researchers say, because it reflects an exceptional combination of academic achievement and ambition; its exclusivity also makes it somewhat comparable to Gladwell's hockey-selection data. The study found that redshirting has virtually no impact on Ph.D. attainment.
New research suggests redshirting is little more than a silly fad — a "suburban legend."
What's more, it could even undermine a future Ph.D.'s potential lifetime earnings. Based on their analysis of approximately 14,500 freshly minted Ph.D. recipients, the researchers conclude that a student who isn't redshirted could end up earning $138,000 more over the course of his or her lifetime than someone who is. Assuming redshirted students get their doctorates a year later than they would've had they not had their schooling delayed, they get a year's head start on their salaries, which for a first-year Ph.D. recipient averages about $58,000. "The compounding effect" of that $58,000, namely annual inflation over 30 years, causes that difference to accumulate.