Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Red Flagging – Ummm... I mean Shirting... Part 2

This post is the second in a series on the phenomenon of Redshirting.

In Part 1 I discussed the phenomenon of redshirting and some of the reasons behind it. The most common reason for redshirting is perceived deficiency on the part of the child – the child is not deemed ready for kindergarten due to a lack of maturity or skills. Parents do have a cause for concern, because teachers seem to show a bias against younger students, as a major factor in ADHD diagnosis is whether the child is the youngest in the class. Also, proponents of redshirting cite evidence that children who are older than their classmates get higher grades, have more confidence, and generally are favoured by teachers, or should I say, that teachers, in general, complain most about the youngest children in the class...

Recent articles written by economists take a broad approach and find that redshirted children do better overall, such as the findings of Elizabeth Dhuey, whose works have been cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, as well as several newspaper articles, including several features in the New York Times. Her 2006 Article, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, seems to cement the case for redshirting, demonstrating that oldest children, and redshirted children maintain a clear advantage to Grade 8 (when her data set ended), and then demonstrated that oldest students are “12.8% more likely to be university bound than the relatively youngest” high school graduates. However, another factor that is important to consider, is that students who are held back voluntarily (so, redshirted) are most likely to be children of at least middle class or higher families. Why is this the case? Well, redshirting does not come cheap. School, being free, provides financial respite for cash strapped families. In some ways, those in the lowest socioeconomic rungs of the ladder gain a reprieve when their child starts kindergarten. If both parents have been working, the now half day of childcare puts less pressure on their budget. And, if mom has been staying home with the child, she can now attend work for at least a few hours a day. Once the child starts grade one, and is in school full time, the budget relief is palpable. So, financial standing plays a large role in whether or not a child born close to the cut off is voluntarily retained or not.

However, the distinctions do not stop there. While the poorest of the poor frequently qualify for subsidized childcare, the same cannot be said for the working class or low end middle class families. These families are often stuck accepting whatever childcare they can afford, and these are not high end preschool classes... Instead, only the basic necessities of life are met by their childcare, on average (some families do manage an enriched situation for their children, but this is hardly the norm – because it is often out of reach financially, not because poorer parents necessarily neglect their children). So, therein lies one major flaw in Dhuey’s research: in comparing the redshirted children to the youngest children, the redshirted group is almost exclusively high socioeconomic students who spent that “gap year” in high quality preschools, compared to the non-redshirted group who would be a mix of high and low income (and, depending on the district, as redshirting seems to ebb and flow in popularity across districts – with some districts having voluntary redshirting rates as high as 90% and others having rates as low as 4%, some of those districts would have only exclusively poorer children.)

Dhuey tries to control for this effect by including the education level of the mother in the data, however, maternal education is not the main factor in how a child performs in school, nor is socioeconomic status. Food insecurity is more closely linked to developmental risk and poor school performance. Even well educated people can fall on hard enough times that they cannot keep their fridges stocked.

Now, for those of you who have clicked on all my hyperlinks and read the associated articles, you may say, but some of her data sets were out of Europe, where free, government provided high quality childcare is more the norm. The thing is, in Europe this effect would also hold true. Government funded childcare centres and preschools typically do not allow for extra years of attendance. Parents do not control the timeline nearly so much as with private care centres - so, if European parents choose to redshirt, that gap year – whether it occurs before preschool or between preschool and kindergarten, it is on the parent’s dime. Parents who can’t keep the fridge stocked aren’t in a position to do this. The socioeconomic gap stands, whether it is in Europe or North America.

Other researchers have tried to examine more closely the impact of socio-economic status in regards to this voluntary delayed school entrance. One method is by using semi parametric matching. Each child who is redshirted is compared with one or more children with similar birthdates AND socioeconomic standing who was not redshirted. Their trajectories are compared. Researchers Jane Arnold Lincove and Gary Painter divide a specific cohort children by youngest, on time and redshirted, and examine their trajectories from Grade 8 to age 26 – a period missed by Dhuey. Their study was published in 2006 in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, and the full body of the article can be found for free. They begin by comparing young to redshirted looking for benefits and comparing likelihood of repeating a grade... Then move on to how repeating a grade impacts each group, and whether repeating a grade is more advantageous or less advantageous than being redshirted. Interesting findings in their study were that, when children of similar status were directly compared, varying only on whether or not they were voluntarily entered late, children who could have been redshirted and were not AND were never held back had the highest grades and more gains regarding human capital overall. Children likely to be redshirted who repeated kindergarten fared equally well with redshirted children, and redshirted children suffered more (grades-wise and human capital-wise) than non redshirted children when they were held back a grade. The only situation in which redshirted children fared better than eligible children who were not redshirted had to do with when those non-redshirted children were held back in a grade that was not kindergarten. However, overall gains in this area were relatively small. They concluded that, when each scenario was compared, the benefits to being the youngest outweighed being redshirted:

Our results suggest that, in the long-term, there are no benefits to a policy of intentionally delaying kindergarten entry. Although children who start kindergarten older are less likely to repeat a grade, the effects of repeating on dropout rates appear to be less severe for younger children. The matching results show that when students have similar probability of repeating a grade, the younger students perform as well as redshirted students. This indicates that the observed differences in outcomes for redshirted students are largely due to selection of students into the redshirted and non-redshirted groups.

They go on to caution regarding the very real issue that concerns parents – whether or not their particular child will be held back:

Although being younger at school may raise achievement on average, parents should still be concerned with the higher risk of repeating a grade for young kindergarteners.

They suggest that parents weigh the school policy regarding grade retention, and their own role in advocating for their child. And, finally, they conclude with reference to human capital:

...the most important effect of age at school entry may be that older students lose a year of participation in the workforce rather than that younger students are disadvantaged in the early years.

Parents should note: biases do appear to come into play when it comes to grade retention – especially regarding boys – and this is a key area for parents to advocate (and, actually, a key area for broadening the education of teachers). Height is a factor in grade advancement for boys – shorter boys are more likely to be retained, even when researchers control for low birth weight (a factor in ADHD and other disorders that would also impact height), and for low socioeconomic status, and maternal IQ (factors in school performance and general IQ). Moreover, the researchers point to evidence that:

Age tends to be underestimated in shorter children and this can leave them “infantilised” within the peer group. Conversely, taller children have consistently been reported as more mature than their age matched classmates. There is also evidence that adult expectations of and reinforcements given to school age children vary according to a child's height.

Short term (grade 8) studies which do not control for social status finds massive gains in redshirted individuals – but much of these gains can be attributed to social status, as, in long term studies which begin in grade 8 look at the phenomenon of redshirting and control for social status, the gains disappear. But, what about the actual biology? How does brain development work, and how does that factor into this whole equation? Stay tuned...

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Red Flagging - Ummm... I mean Shirting... PART 1

This post is the first in a series on the phenomenon of Redshirting.

So... redshirting has been in the media a lot lately. This is not a new phenomenon, but, currently it does seem to be getting fairly extreme. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, redshirting refers to the practice of parents or a school placing children in kindergarten the year AFTER they meet the age requirement. So, that means if the regulation for entry to kindergarten is that the child must be at least 5 years old by September, and a child meets that criteria, parents wait until the following year to place their child kindergarten. So, the child will in fact be 6 years old by that cutoff, rather than 5. There are many reasons parents delay entry to kindergarten: frequent reasons cited are a lack of maturity; poor "kindergarten readiness" (I put that in quotes, because parents and teachers often have very different ideas of readiness...); and the parents desire to give their child an edge in skills and leadership abilities. 60 minutes recently did a segment on this phenomenon and this final reason; being an oldest child giving an advantage; was the main focus of that segment.

However, a major factor in whether a parent delays entry for their child is birth month. Another major factor is gender. Children, specifically boys, born in the months immediately preceeding a cutoff are most likely to be redshirted, and the most typical reason is for a deficiency; perceived lack of readiness. Notably, this redshirting is independent of when the cutoff actually occurs, a different, earlier cutoff does not reduce the occurance of these delayed entrances. So, in my province, the cutoff is March 1; children as young as 4.5 enter kindergarten here, whereas in other provinces the cutoff is January 1 and yet other provinces have a cutoff of September 1. Where the cutoff is March, the targetted group is born November and later, Where the cutoff is January, the targetted group is August and later, and where it is September the greatest retainees are born May and later... The greatest cluster of kids who wait to enter is in the month just preceeding the cutoff.

However, currently, I am noticing a shift "on the ground." I find often that the media discusses a "trend" and it appears to simply be a means to stir controversy. In the day to day life of "the average person" (okay, me) this "trend" may or may not exist at all. But, this particular phenomenon does seem to be on the rise - even in my little life... I have had conversations with mothers whose children would be among the oldest in their cohort who STILL decided to redshirt their child - when their child actually displays many markers of readiness. Case in point, I spoke to a mother whose child was born in JUNE (considering that March 1 is our cutoff, this child is in the oldest quartile...). Her child is currently 5 years old, can read, has good social skills, is physically capable and competent, has excellent communication skills... and so on. She is even tall for her age. Her mom has decided to place her in kindergarten next year so that she will be even farther ahead of her peers, and have great "leadership skills." At the end of kindergarten, she will be turning 7, when the oldest of the rest of her "entered on time" classmates will be turning 6.

Malcolm Gladwell's discussion regarding the hockey roster in Outliers is the oft cited rationale behind redshirting for advantageous reasons (delaying entry of a normally developing child to provide an edge as opposed to holding a child back because that child is perceived as lacking in some area). In his book, he discusses how in all sports that have a cutoff, the older kids do better, then segues into discussing how the same kind of cutoff is impacting our schoolchildren. Bascially, in hockey, it works something like this: children born just after the cutoff are bigger, more mature and more physically capable in the early years, and so are most likely to be selected for the better team in the following year. Look through any roster of hockey players, and you find that this early advantage does follow through all the way through a hockey players career. The vast majority of hockey players are born just after the cutoff, and ones who are born just before the cutoff often have some sort of exceptional history... When he moves the discourse to talk about kindergarten entry, he discusses the advantages that an older child receives in kindergarten. Older children have an edge in kindergarten, typically, because they are better able to carry a conversation, have grown out of a lot of the extreme antsy pantsy-ness that plagues preschoolers, and generally are viewed as more intelligent. Youngest children, on the other hand, tend to be biased against. Supporting Malcolm Gladwells assumptions is a 2010 study published in the Journal of Health Economics regarding the frequency of misdiagnosis in schoolchildren who are the youngest in their classes.

Using a sample of nearly 12,000 children, Elder examined the difference in ADHD diagnosis and medication rates between the youngest and oldest children in a grade. The data is from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort, which is funded by the National Center for Education Statistics.

According to Elder's study, the youngest kindergartners were 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than the oldest children in the same grade. Similarly, when that group of classmates reached the fifth and eighth grades, the youngest were more than twice as likely to be prescribed stimulants.

Overall, the study found that about 20 percent -- or 900,000 -- of the 4.5 million children currently identified as having ADHD likely have been misdiagnosed.

The researchers go on to say:

The results -- both from individual states and when compared across states -- were definitive. For instance, in Michigan -- where the kindergarten cutoff date is Dec. 1 -- students born Dec. 1 had much higher rates of ADHD than children born Dec. 2. (The students born Dec. 1 were the youngest in their grade; the students born Dec. 2 enrolled a year later and were the oldest in their grade.)

Thus, even though the students were a single day apart in age, they were assessed differently simply because they were compared against classmates of a different age set, Elder said.

In another example, August-born kindergartners in Illinois were much more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than Michigan kindergartners born in August of the same year as their Illinois counterparts. That's because Illinois' kindergarten cutoff date is Sept. 1, meaning those August-born children were the youngest in their grade, whereas the Michigan students were not.

The article then discusses the teacher's instrumental role in an ADHD diagnosis, that their perceptions of the child's behaviour is very much taken into account when an expert is in the process of providing a diagnosis. The fact that date of birth plays such a key role strongly implies a bias against younger children, which then influences their school experience.

The conversation with the "extreme redshirter" in particular got me thinking. What is the scientific basis for redshirting? Is it a valid way to offer an advantage? Are there reprocussions that have not been considered? Could there be benefits to being the youngest? Detriments to being the oldest? What do the long term studies say? And, does the comparison with hockey even hold water? And, finally, is redshirting the best (or even a good) answer to the problems it tries to address?

Redshirting is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it was so common in the mid 90s that the cutoff in many US states was actually moved back from December 31 to September 1 along with the advent of the "No Child Gets Left Behind" policy introduced in 2001. States like California that did not change the cutoff are doing it now.

The 1970s also saw a bout of redshirting... so there actually is a lot of research out there on the phenomenon. I have been pouring through that to find the pros and cons of being a young child, vs. being an older child, vs. being redshirted, vs. being held back in the early grades.... In the next few posts, I will discuss the short term and long term effects of all these situations.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012


So, this is a very personal post, really my first one so far.

At the beginning of May, I found out that I was pregnant - a surprise pregnancy that I wasn't sure how I felt about it. We have 4 boys, and 4 is a number that just feels right and 5, well, I always said 5 was excessive. But here we are - 14 weeks pregnant, a beautiful ultrasound under our belts - well, under mine, really, dh just got to watch the screen :) And, I haven't even told everyone... I don't know why, and I am afraid that what I feel is shame. Shame for having moved outside the realm of a large sized normal family and into the realm of bizarre. Shame that somehow this means that I wasn't capable of only becoming pregnant on my schedule. And that weighs me down, that this upcoming addition somehow feels like a subtraction. I am acutely aware that it shouldn't be this way, that I shouldn't feel like this - and, well, it hurts that I do. And then I feel that maybe I am simply still in shock.

I remember commenting to a friend that Canadian culture, and, likely that of most first world countries, is uncomfortable with the idea of children - that there are so many rules and limits - that remaining in the "nuclear" set is integral to remaining in good society. Talking to mothers who have extended their brood beyond four, it was interesting to hear their stories. One mother talked of announcing the news of her pregnancy to her friends and family, and receiving a backlash of anger and condescension. Another mother told me of a friend who was caught by surprise with a 6th pregnancy, and the friends would gossip behind her back as to whether she had heard of an abortion... These stories instill a sense of fear in me, as I procrastinate the big announcement.

However, my forays into telling people have only been met with positives. My husband, who was certainly not planning a 5th has been nothing but supportive. My mother in law and all my in laws have been excited for me. The kids, well, they are in a tizzy and absolutely over the moon with the news of a 5th baby. My mom has been excited for me, and so have any friends that I shared my news with. I have truly been spoiled with the good response so far... yet I still have not officially made the announcement.

So, here goes...

We are having a baby!

Our little (5th) bundle should arrive the 25th of January - apparently, again I have hit the birthday of a friend with my due date - the third time this has happened. The first ultrasound went beautifully, our baby measured perfectly for dates, and had a heartbeat of 150 (according to the old wives tale, this predicts another boy). We are going to find out the sex - not every family likes to do this - but we like having the name all picked and refer to the squirming belly with an actual name... Plus, I am not a fan of green and yellow...

The plan, as it stands, is for another home birth (though, of course, I am aware that things can always change), and I have already had one midwife appointment (at 9 weeks - the doppler picked up a nice, strong heartbeat), and go for another today.