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Deborah Stipek: Transitional kindergarten has real value, don’t give it up

01.16.2012 | San Jose Mercury News | Deborah Stipek

Education
cuts at any level are foolish in a state in which schools are already
starving. While we need to balance California’s budget, we also need to
avoid cuts that will severely cost the state in the long run. Cutting
funding for transitional kindergarten, as the governor proposes, may do
just that.

In California, children are now required to enter
kindergarten if they turn 5 years old by Sept. 1 rather than the
previous date of Dec. 1. California legislators also created a year of
transitional kindergarten for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and
Dec. 2 to address these children’s needs. But the governor’s budget
request eliminates funding for transitional kindergarten, turning a
positive legislative decision into one that will harm the academic
performance of California’s children.

Without transitional
kindergarten, children will be delayed access to formal education by
three months, and 125,000 will lose a whole year. For a 5-year-old, this
is a crucial time for laying the foundation for future learning.
Research has shown that experience during the first five years of life
have long-term effects on children’s brains in ways that affect their
learning long into their future. And when children enter school, their
skills profoundly affect their ability to take advantage of the
curriculum.

The return on early investment in education is
substantial. The cost is paid back many times over in reduced grade
retentions, special education services and in
lower expenditures for incarceration. Returns also come in the form of
the increased productivity that results from higher levels of academic
achievement and high school completion rates.

What’s more,
transitional kindergarten produces jobs for teachers and local demands
on goods and services, and it gives parents who cannot afford other
forms of child care an opportunity to work.

To be sure, children
gain some maturity in the three additional months they will have on
average in California before they begin kindergarten. But children make
the most progress on academic skills in structured educational settings.
Research shows that, on average, children who have been in center-based
preschools have greater academic success than children who have
experienced less formal early childhood settings. If we want to increase
academic success, we need to get children into educational contexts
sooner, not later.

For many low-income children who do not have
access to quality preschool, transitional kindergarten could make the
difference between success and failure. Given the governor’s proposed
elimination of 71,000 child care positions, removing funding for
transitional kindergarten is a double whammy for children living in
poverty.

Children from low-income families begin kindergarten, on
average, at least a year behind middle-class children in basic academic
skills, and most don’t catch up. Entering skills are the best predictor
of how well students will succeed in high school and their likelihood
of dropping out. Moving kindergarten eligibility up by three months
without providing children with another educational program is likely to
increase the achievement gap between low-income and more affluent
children.

California’s students are already racing to the bottom
in terms of academic achievement. In the 2011 National Assessment of
Education Progress, our eighth-graders ranked 47th in math and 50th in
literacy; only children in Mississippi and the District of Columbia had
lower average literacy scores. But the real problem is that our children
are not performing well enough to support an economically viable state.
We’re not just losing a race; we are losing our future. We should not
make a disastrous situation worse by cutting funds that may provide the
most benefit in the long run.

Deborah Stipek is former dean
and a professor at the Stanford University School of Education. She
wrote this article for this newspaper.

 

 

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