The Lengthening of Childhood
Forty years ago, 96% of six-year-old children were enrolled in first grade or above. As of 2005, the figure was just 84%. The school attendance rate of six-year-olds has not decreased; rather, they are increasingly likely to be enrolled in kindergarten rather than first grade. This paper documents this historical shift. We show that only about a quarter of the change can be proximately explained by changes in school entry laws; the rest reflects "academic redshirting," the practice of enrolling a child in a grade lower than the one for which he is eligible. We show that the decreased grade attainment of six-year-olds reverberates well beyond the kindergarten classroom. Recent stagnation in the high school and college completion rates of young people is partly explained by their later start in primary school. The relatively late start of boys in primary school explains a small but significant portion of the rising gender gaps in high school graduation and college completion. Increases in the age of legal school entry intensify socioeconomic differences in educational attainment, since lower-income children are at greater risk of dropping out of school when they reach the legal age of school exit.
We have benefited from the thoughtful comments of Joshua Angrist, Claudia Goldin, Richard Murnane, Deborah Stipek and workshop participants at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Harvard, McGill, Michigan, Stanford and Syracuse. Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey generously gave us their data on state school entry laws. Jessica Becker and Rezwan Haque provided excellent research assistance. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of Harvard's Multidisciplinary Program on Inequality and Social Policy (Deming) and the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and the Milton Fund (Dynarski). This paper is forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives (Summer 2008). The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
David Deming & Susan Dynarski, 2008. "The Lengthening of Childhood," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 22(3), pages 71-92, Summer. citation courtesy of