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...

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