Michigan’s 13,000 ‘redshirt’ kindergartners

Kindergarten classes in Escanaba and Dearborn are quite similar, with 5-year-olds wiggling in their chairs and brightly-colored artwork lining the walls. But when children walked out of those classrooms in the spring of 2011, they faced different futures.

In Escanaba Area Public Schools, almost 40 percent of the children were told they weren’t moving on to first grade and would be taking a second year of kindergarten; in Dearborn City Schools, less than 2 percent were asked to repeat kindergarten.

The chances of your child repeating kindergarten is not related to academics or maturity, but geography. A Bridge Magazine analysis revealed kindergarten retention rates in Michigan ranging from about 1 percent to more than 45 percent – a disparity that bears no relation to academic outcomes, poverty or race.

Michigan fails a startling one in nine kindergartners, despite study after study finding no long-lasting academic benefit to holding students back in kindergarten, and some studies finding kindergarten retention hurts kids and increases the risk of dropping out.

Taxpayers are in effect getting one school year for the price of two – paying an average of $7,000 per failed 5-year-old for an additional year of schooling that doesn’t produce better learners.

Most of the 13,000 failed kids – costing the state $90 million annually – had no chance – their retentions were planned before they stepped into a classroom for the first time.

Kindergarten is most likely grade for retention

One of every nine kindergarten students in Michigan public schools repeated kindergarten in 2010-11, according to Michigan Department of Education data, by far the highest rate of retention of any grade.


Bridge’s analysis found:

Rural and Northern Michigan schools had the highest kindergarten retention rates. New Lothrop Area Public Schools, between Flint and Saginaw, held back a whopping 45 percent of its kindergarten students in 2010-11, the latest year for which data is available. New Lothrop was the highest in the state, followed by Escanaba (39.8 percent), Cass City (39.0), Charlevoix (37.9) and Glen Lake (35.8) .

Schools in Southeast Michigan had the lowest retention rates. Utica Community Schools retained 1.24 percent. (Data is only available for districts that retained 10 or more students, so plenty of small districts don’t have retention rates in the analysis.) Dearborn retained 1.4 percent, Farmington, 1.9 percent, Rochester, 2 percent and Detroit, 2 percent.


There was no correlation between kindergarten retention rates and a district’s academic achievement. Charlevoix and Escanaba students have above average scores on standardized tests, but when those scores are adjusted for the income level of families attending those schools, students don’t appear to have gained much if anything from an extra year in kindergarten. Meanwhile, there are schools with low retention rates that are among the state’s high-achievers and low-achievers.

The one constant: money.

Almost $100 million in extra costs

The 13,364 kids who repeated kindergarten in 2010-11 will take 14 years to graduate instead of 13. That extra year will cost Michigan $93 million – based on the $6,966 minimum state aid grant for the current year.

While some of those children were judged by teachers and parents to need an extra year to master the skills needed for first grade, the majority were “planned retentions,” with schools knowing before the children enter kindergarten for the first day that the students will be there two years.

The goals of such programs are to give kids who are eligible for kindergarten an extra year before entering first grade. Children in the programs tend to be younger (until this year, children were eligible to enroll in kindergarten in September if they turned 5 by Dec. 1); and more boys are in such two-year programs than girls, says Lindy Buch, director of early childhood education for the Michigan Department of Education.

The programs go by different names in different communities, such as Ready 5’s, Begindergarten and Developmental Kindergarten. Buch uses a different name:


Redshirting is typically associated with delaying a college athlete’s participation in a sport for a year to give him more time to develop. In education, it also refers to delaying entry to first grade.

“There’s a slew of research on redshirting,” Buch said. “Some families say my kid isn’t even 5 yet, families felt they aren’t ready. Families sometimes have strong feelings about holding boys back. You’ll hear that some families want to hold boys back for athletics, so they’ll be bigger in high school.”

Kindergarten eligibility dates are the same across the state. There’s no reason to believe families are 29 times more concerned about their children being ready for first grade in Escanaba as they are in Dearborn. So what accounts for the vast difference? Decisions by individual school districts as to whether to operate a developmental kindergarten class.

Those decisions are ““more related to desire and opinion than data,” Buch said. “It’s a matter of (individual school) policy.”

Those decisions have an impact on taxpayers as well as overall school budgets.

The state will pay at least $6,966 for that extra year of kindergarten. By comparison, the state pays $3,400 for the state-funded preschool program for 4-year-olds, the Great Start Readiness Program. Studies have shown that children enrolled in GSRP have lower rates of retention than similar children who didn’t attend the preschool. In other words, kindergarten retention costs twice as much as the GSRP preschool program which is a proven school-readiness strategy.

Escanaba convinced of retention’s value

Escanaba school administrators, teachers and parents have a long history of multiple-year kindergarten.

“Our main (goal) was to provide a good foundation for first grade,” said Paulette Wickham, kindergarten coordinator and elementary school principal at Escanaba Area Public Schools. “We had a lot of parents who choose readiness because they want (their child) exposed to school before beginning the (kindergarten) curriculum.”

In 2010-11, Escanaba had 111 children taking a second year of kindergarten. By comparison, Detroit -- the state’s biggest school district -- held back 115.

To Wickham, redshirting makes a difference down the road. “When you look at a Dec. 1 birthday, you’re not turning 18 until December of your freshman year in college,” Wickham said.

Almost all of Escanaba’s kindergarten retention is planned retention, through developmental kindergarten classes. “There’s no stigma here attached to two years of kindergarten,” Wickham said. “In my experience, they are more mature in the (academic work) they are going to have to face. You don’t have them in first or second grade with their head on the desk crying.”

“To me it makes sense if we’re going to have any retention, to have it as early as possible (before) they create a peer group,” said Escanaba Superintendent Michele Lemire. “An important piece is what the parents want for the child.”

This year, the district dropped its developmental kindergarten program to make classroom space for full-day kindergarten (“I was never a fan of planned retention,” Lemire said). It’s a move that should mean fewer kids taking two years of kindergarten. But in Escanaba, where two years of kindergarten has been the standard for decades, parents have different ideas.

Dozens of families moved their 5-year-olds to private schools still offering kindergarten readiness programs, or have kept them at home. “Families are asking for a second year,” Wickham said. By early March, the parents of 13 of 55 kindergarten students had already asked to have their child held back. Even if no other parents ask for a redshirt between now and August, Wickham’s school’s retention rate would be more than double the state retention rate.

“I believe in my heart of hearts, when I look at the children in readiness, it’s about them being ready for success in future grades,” Wickham said.

Research finds no benefit to retention

Shane Jimerson has heard that belief from administrators, teachers and parents across the country. “They simply have a belief, and they’ve articulated a rationale for that, and it’s often based on the one student who succeeded,” said Jimerson, a University of California-Santa Barbara psychology professor who has written extensively on grade retention. “Because the children are in kindergarten, there’s a prevailing opinion that they’re so young, we should set the research aside. But when you look at the actual data, you see grade retention has not yielded lasting effects. Sometimes you’ll see an increase in (academic achievement) the following year, but that’s not always the case either.”

Jimerson’s point is straight-forward: If there’s no long-term academic benefit to kindergarten retention, why are schools doing it?

“Grade retention is the single biggest indicator of dropping out of school,” Jimerson said. “For some, it will be the defining characteristic about their school careers.

One hundred years of research shows that the children who need help the most are harmed the most,” Jimerson said.

Dearborn avoids retention

Dearborn takes a different approach to struggling kindergartners. Rather than holding them back for a second year, the children get extra support to help them catch up.

“Just because they are not ready in kindergarten it doesn’t mean they are a failure,” said Jill Chochol, assistant superintended for elementary education at Dearborn City Schools. “They may not have had the experiences or maturity yet So we provide more individualized support.”

Reading specialists, resource teachers and bilingual experts work with struggling students.

Another factor in Dearborn’s low kindergarten retention rate is a robust Great Start Readiness Program for 4-year-olds. “A third of our students were in GSRP,” Chochol said. “We have 480 slots and every slot is filled.”

The district also has a tuition-based preschool program for families who do not qualify for GSRP. “We feel the early start is beneficial,” Chochol said.

State works to curtail retention

Michigan has taken several steps that may help lower kindergarten retention rates.

Most districts switched to full-day kindergarten this year when the state stopped offering a full-day student allowance for half-day programs. Having twice as much instruction time should help prepare more students for first grade.

“My students are reading much quicker,” said Escanaba kindergarten teacher Mary Beth LaPorte. “I’ve been hoping for this for a long time.”

The Department of Education is developing a standard kindergarten assessment, so that all children are judged on their readiness for first grade on the same basis, MDE’s Buch said. That standard should be in place for fall 2014.

And the state’s cutoff date for kindergarten eligibility is being moved over several years from Dec. 1 (one of the latest dates in the country) to Sept. 1. With the new cutoff date, all children will be at least 5 when they walk into a kindergarten classroom.

But Buch warns that there will still be pressure to redshirt kindergartners.

“With a Dec. 1 cutoff, we hear worries about the boys with fall birthdays,” Buch said. “States with Sept. 1 cutoffs hear worries about the boys with summer birthdays. And Indiana, when they moved to a June 1 cutoff, heard worries about boys with spring birthdays.

“Someone is always going to be the youngest,” Buch said. Kindergarten retention is “based on the false notion of child development, that children will just develop when they’re older (without intervention).”

“We need to move beyond the grade retention vs. social promotion question,” professor Jimerson said. “That is not the question. The question is what are we going to do to help this child learn?”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.

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Tony McLain
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 8:32am
Many years ago we red-shirted our oldest daughter as she had a November birthday. She was academically ready for kindergarten at four but our concern was at the other end. Would she be ready for a college experience at the age of 17? I've never regretted the decision.
Angela Wilson
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:30am
Our family took advantage of the Begindergarten program for our daughter 3 years ago for the same reasons and we don't regret decision. Anecdotally, I have not heard anyone regret sending their child to Begindergarten or an early 5's program, but I have heard parents regret not sending their child to an early 5's, begindergarten or similar program.
Jo Smith
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 12:05pm
Why not just send your child to preschool?
Earl Newman
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:30am
I point you to professor Jimerson's comment, to wit:: “We need to move beyond the grade retention vs. social promotion question,” professor Jimerson said. “That is not the question. The question is what are we going to do to help this child learn?” This is the appropriate response to the question you raise. We charge local districts with responsibility for providing education for the youngsters in their respective areas. We need to support the decisions of local professionals regarding the "promotion" or "retention" of individual pupils. The problem with your research approach is that it takes a typical bean-counter's stance, not an educational stance. You must evaluate the seven thousand dollars in excess costs not against a single year's costs, but against the entire elementary and secondary level of costs for an individual student. The seven thousand dollars is a pittance amortized over a thirteen year school program and compared to the importance of giving the child a good start.
Ron French
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:59am
We at Bridge agree completely! the problem, though, is that studies indicate that the academic benefit of an extra year of kindergarten fades in a couple years; some studies also indicate that those with two years of kindergarten are more likely to drop out of school. I'm a believer in spending money on education, but does kindergarten retention lead to higher academic achievement? If not, is it a waste of money, or are there other, soft skills that make it worthwhile? In a state where some districts retain less than 2 percent and others retain more than 40 percent, someone's got it wrong. We're suggesting it's time for a conversation to figure it out. Here's a link to one study.http://cdn.bridgemi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Grade-Retention-for-E...
kathy backus
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:37am
Interesting term applied to Kindergarten vs. sports, but I suppose it makes sense. In our district, when our kids were in kindergarten one trend I noted was parents enrolling their "young five-year-olds" in kindergarten with the full intent of having them attend kindergarten again a second time the following year. This was happening because in those years our district discontinue its DK (Developmental Kindergarten) program, as a means of budget savings. So, in talking to parents of these "young-fives" . Enrolling them in kindergarten was "free" vs. having to place them in pre-school & daycare. Based on age, they were eligible (barely - most of them born in fall months, but prior to Dec. 5 year old cut off deadline). But, based on ability (mental & emotional)most were not qualified nor prepared to be in kindergarten yet. The frustrating part of this from parent of a student in the class who was age-eligible & ready to be there . he was in a class with children ranging in age from 4-6 years old. A big range at that age. As challenging as it was for the students . multiply that challenge by 30+ kids, ranging in age from 4 to 6 for the teacher. Yikes!!!!
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:37am
I'm wondering why the opinion of one college professor (Shane Jimerson) is presented in the paragraph with the heading "Research finds no benefit to retention." No actual research was provided in this paragraph, just the opinion of Professor Jimerson. Personally, I would prefer to see links to the actual research so that I can draw my own conclusions.
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 11:29am
The link provided does not take me to an actual research paper(s). It takes me to an interpretation piece written by Dr. Jimerson and associates from the University of Californa. Thankfully, the actual research from which they drew their conclusions is provided under the "Resources" heading at the end of the essay. However, of the seven resources listed, Dr Jimerson himself is the author of four of them. It would have been helpful if Mr. French had included other sources of research in this article besides Dr. Jimerson, but I think perceptive readers will be able to find other research sources.
Janis Dietrich
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 10:14am
It would seem there was a slant towards children as a product in Mr. Jimerson's remarks and the financial cost being a determining factor. Encouraging preschool funding for every school district might be considered an option. Mr. Jimerson might want to look at the mandated testing being done in first grade. Research can show many views, including preconceived ones.
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 10:11am
Both my daughters have late August birthdays. Both attended developmental kindergarten, then attended kindergarten as 6-year olds. I never regretted "academic redshirting" as they sailed through school. My motto, "Why be average when you can be the best?" One was class salutatorian; the other class valedictorian. Both have engineering degrees from a prestigious university. One teacher told me, "School is a journey, not a race." I have no regrets having held them back. To this day I believe it has been a tremendous advantage for both.
Barbara Megerian
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 10:14am
"Red shirting" works well for some; however, the social issues affecting kindergarteners if not solved in one year, follow them throughout their school experience. Sadly, social issues are not easily solved and plague sltudents' ability to learn and to adjust. They end up in Professor J's statistics.r
Jon Blakey
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 11:40am
And then there is Finland, where students do not start formal schooling until age 7 and they have some of the highest PISA scores in the world. The below link takes you to an interesting article from the BBC regarding England's early start (age 5 like U.S.) and lack of effects. All of this discussion on retention neglects the fact that poverty accounts for much, if not most of the differences in achievement in our schools. Finland supposedly has much better support systems (social safety nets) in place for their children prior to their entry in schools. They also require much higher standards for teacher preparation. Since we have research that supports both in having positive effects on achievement, why are we avoiding these fixes, especially since we are so ready to spend and extra $7,000 a year to retain students?http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7234578.stm
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 2:07pm
Interesting article. However, was I mistaken, or did you just compare the K retention rate of Escanaba and Detroit? How about we compare their dropout rates, ACT scores and MEAP scores? I wonder what that would tell us about the relationship between these two schools and their percentage of K retentions.
Ron French
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 2:27pm
We primarily compared the kindergarten retention rates of Escanaba and Dearborn, but Detroit is also a comparison, where 2 percent of kindergartners are retained, vs. almost 40 percent in Escanaba. You make an interesting point, and it's one addressed in the article. Escanaba's standardized test scores are a little above average for the state, but when you compare Escanaba to other districts of similar income level (measured by percentage of free and reduced lunch), fares about average; by comparison, Dearborn, with low kindergarten retention, has one of the highest "value-added" academic achievement scores in the state, in Bridge Magazine's Value Added Matrix.http://bridgemi.com/2013/01/which-mich-schools-add-most-value-for-students/andhttp://bridgemi.com/2013/01/state-champs-see-how-your-local-district-ranks/Detroit, also with a low kindergarten retention, has a very poor value-added matrix score. My point - there appears to be no correlation between kindergarten retention rates and academic achievement, at least as measured by distictwide standardized test scores.
Susan Belanger
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 4:14pm
I am a Kindergarten teacher in Escanaba and feel a need to point out a couple of items in defense of our Readiness Kindergarten program. First, in comparing Dearborn with Escanaba, you did not mention whether Dearborn had a full day or half day Kindergarten program? Escanaba has had a 1/2 day K program for many years, which is partially why we also provided a Readiness or "young 5's" program for our students. As a small somewhat rural district it was financially difficult to provide full day Kindergarten. Our Readiness class provided some extra time for meeting the stringent requirements of the Kindergarten curriculum for those younger kids who were not developmentally ready to tackle the academics of Kindergarten right away, and at the speed necessary to "get it all in" in a half day. Second, we have never considered our RK program students as "failures" we have always provided a completely different curriculum focused more on school and social and emotional readiness so that when they entered the traditional Kindergarten program they would have the tools they needed to begin the more academic side of the curriculum. It was a two-part program more than a planned retention program. Now that we have full-day, our need for this type of program has diminished, but until we start understanding that developmental age plays a part in academic learning, and adjust start dates appropriately, the need will always be there. Articles like this only serve to harm those children who truly need that extra time to grow!
Winnie Rockentine
Wed, 03/27/2013 - 2:04pm
I agree with this kindergarten teacher from Escanaba when she says we need to understand the connection between developmental readiness and a child's success in school (my paraphrasing). I also detest it when an analogy is made between educating a student and the cost effectiveness of the education. We are not producing a "thing" as in manufacturing when we teach/educate children. All children are unique and each one deserves an individual assessment for readiness. The answer here in Michigan is to include preschool in the K-12 budget. It is the only way ALL students will have developmental readiness time prior to beginning full-day kindergarten, which is the norm now in Michigan. Poverty is a major impediment to a student's educational success. If the parent(s) work a lot of hours to maintain the home, there isn't much time left for preparing a young child for success in school. A parent's involvement in the child's education is imperative, but too many parents aren't involved.
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 4:15pm
It sounds as if another year of kdg does not have a lasting effect, but how does one measure confidence, resilency or tolerance? There are other skills to be gained by a second year of early education. I'd like to see more research about what is causing the retention and how we can fix the problem. If there is a problem.
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 5:02pm
It's all about securing future funding. It's despicable that some school districts are using this tactic to get it. That's the crux of the matter.
Steve Swaton
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 8:26pm
I find it troubling that Bridge would call pre-planned programs such as the Readiness Kindergarten program (redshirting) my kids went to being retained or held back. This implies failure on the part of students, teachers and schools when those making the decision to give a student an extra year of schooling have screened the student and made the decision ahead of time. Your headline is misleading and statistics skewed. I think much of this boils down to the all mighty dollar. Your comments about there being no statistical relationship between readiness programs and overall student success is troubling. Ask many parents whose children have had that extra year if it helped their child. Education is about people not just money.
Steve Swaton
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:01pm
"Michigan fails a startling one in nine kindergartners, despite study after study finding no long-lasting academic benefit to holding students back in kindergarten, and some studies finding kindergarten retention hurts kids and increases the risk of dropping out." Are these studies focusing on real retention, as in a student failing a grade or do they include planned programs that "redshirt" kids like a readiness kindergarten program? The focus of the study makes a big difference. My kids have benefited mightily from the readiness kindergarten program in our district in spite of the studies involved. Once again, I am concerned statistics are becoming more important than the people affected by such proactive programs that knowingly "redshirt" kids, who in no way failed kindergarten as the terms being held back imply.
Ron French
Tue, 03/26/2013 - 9:22pm
Thanks for your comment Steve, and no worries about the repeated postings - happens all the time. Comments must be approved so sometimes there's a bit of a lag before you see them. In answer to your concern, Bridge isn't on its own calling two-year kindergarten programs retentions - the Michigan Department of Education classifies them as retentions. Our data comes from the MDE. Look at it this way: From the time the children are eligible to enter kindergarten, to the time they graduate, is normally 13 years (K-12); those who stay in kindergarten for two years graduate in 14 years. Regarding this coming down to money, to a large extent, you're right. the cost of an extra year of schooling is worth it to the student, and to the state, if there's an academic benefit of that extra year. But studies say there isn't a benefit. What we find troubling is some schools offer two years of kindergarten, with children graduating in 14 years instead of 13, and some don't; I think we'd both agree that both can't be right - either it's good for kids, or it's not, so somebody's got it wrong. We think the state should figure out what works. It could well be that the best "developmental kindergarten" is a good preschool at age 4 - the Great Start Readiness Program has a proven track record of reducing kindergarten retention.
Wed, 03/27/2013 - 12:07pm
We conducted a small study of age differences and student achievement using the fall 2012 MEAP results. The gaps between children born in the first half of the year and those born in the second half were eye-opening. We do not engage in the "redshirting" practice but maybe we should consider it. http://rebel6.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/to-redshirt-or-not/
Mon, 04/04/2016 - 10:03am
Three years have passed since this article's publication. A point not explored perhaps well enough was the financial benefit that then accrued to districts with half day programs and two years of kindergarten. Retention was a cash cow for districts, as they received a full ~$6,900 in state aid for half day programming; retention doubled their student counts.