Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 20, 2013

on redshirting

Maria Konnikova writes about the practice of “redshirting,” that is, starting kids' schooling at a later age so they'll be among the older rather than among the younger kids in class:

On the surface, redshirting seems to make sense in the academic realm, too. The capabilities of a child’s brain increase at a rapid pace; the difference between five-year-olds and six-year-olds is far greater than between twenty-five-year-olds and twenty-six-year-olds. An extra year can allow a child to excel relative to the younger students in the class. “Especially for boys, there is thought to be a relative-age effect that persists across sports and over time,” said Friedman. “Early investment of time and skill developments appears to have a more lasting impact.” Older students and athletes are often found in leadership positions—and who can doubt the popularity of the star quarterback relative to the gym-class weakling?

It’s this competitive logic, rather than genuine concern about a child’s developmental readiness, that drives redshirting.

To that claim, I reply: How the hell do you know? Honestly, few things infuriate me more than writers who calmly assure you what other people's motives are. Are there some parents who make the decision to redshirt out of purely competitive motives? No doubt. How many? I have no idea and neither do you. The line often attributed to Rebecca West that “There's no such thing as an unmixed motive” applies well to this situation.

My son was born in August and we started him in first grade at age seven. We hadn't the least interest in competing with anyone, nor did Wes — his deeply non-competitive nature was evident from his toddler years. But he was very shy, very unsure of himself, and very small for his age. It was obvious that sports would not be his thing, so we didn't factor that into our decision-making. We just didn't want school to be a place of terror for him, or at least any more than it had to be. As it turned out, even as one of the oldest kids in his class he was also one of the smallest, and had to suffer through a good deal of bullying which was never addressed by his schools and eventually (in 7th grade) led to our decision to educate him at home. Thanks be to God, he's a healthy, happy, and somewhat-above-average-in-height young man today.

More than anything else, I wanted Wes to avoid having to go through what I went through. (As it turned out, I didn't achieve this goal, though I think I lessened the damage.) I know all about being the youngest: with my September birthday, I started school when I was five — and then skipped the second grade. The school's principal told my mother that I would have been bored and restless in second grade, which was probably true. So I was six when I started third grade, 12 when I started high school, 16 when I started college … and, people, it was terrible. My entire childhood and adolescence were miserable, largely because I was so far removed in size and maturity from my classmates. (Things got a little better when I had a massive growth spurt at age 13; before that I was the better part of a foot shorter than anyone in my class.) I was relentlessly, ceaselessly picked on by the older and larger kids who surrounded me — yes, it's called bullying: a phenomenon Konnikova seems unaware of.

Indeed, her celebration of how awesome it is to be the youngest kid in class is wholly based on studies of academic achievement: such younger children tend to do better academically than the ones who are older than their peers. For Konnikova this correlation is obviously causal: put younger kids among older ones and they get smarter; put older kids among young ones and they get dumber. It does not seem to occur to her that the causal arrows might run in the other direction: that kids get put among their elders because they're already smart, or other kids get held back and put among younger kids because they're already struggling.

But whether or not there are academic benefits to being put in class among one's elders, there are often immense social and psychologcal costs. I experienced them, and would give a great deal to be able to rewind my tape and avoid them. They taught me little of value, made me deeply unhappy, and helped me to develop lamentable character traits — chief among them the tendency to lie to generate interest and approval — that it took me years and years to overcome.

Now, such miseries will not happen to everyone. For instance, my friend Tim Carmody was also one of the youngest in his classes when he was growing up, but because he was big for his age — and, I don't know, maybe because of a different personality type — it wasn't a problem for him. But the potential dangers for the younger, especially if they're also the smaller, need to be factored in to any discussion of when to send kids to school. Konnikova ignores these dangers altogether in her eagerness to condemn redshirting parents as hyper-competitive gamers of the system.

The decision about when to send your kid to school is a big one, and it has very large and lasting consequences. These will vary from school to school, and family to family. So the conversation about how to weigh the various factors needs to be a nuanced one. Konnikova's simplistic smear of parents who make a choice she dislikes doesn't help at all.


  • After years of reading both educational research directly and popular media analysis/debate on the same, I have come to the opinion that people want to believe in empirical educational data exactly to the degree that such data confirms their preexisting biases, and no more.

    For example, the overwhelming importance of biological parentage for educational outcomes, a set of correlations so large that they typically dwarf today's latest buzzworthy pedagogical innovation. Nobody wants to hear it.

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