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Study shows transitional kindergarten gains

12.02.2015 | Cabinet Report | Kimberly Beltran

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(Calif.) The state’s investment in pioneering transitional kindergarten appears to be reaping the rewards advocates hoped it would, with a new analysis showing marked advantages for students enrolled in the program over their non-participating peers.

The report, released Tuesday by Washington, D.C.’s American Institutes for Research, found that transitional kindergarten gives youngsters as much as a five-month learning advantage over a comparison group of children who did not attend TK.

“We found that TK broadly benefited enrolled students, improving their reading and mathematics outcomes as well as their executive function,” the group of 11 researchers wrote in their study. “The effects we found are over and above the learning experiences comparison children received prior to entering kindergarten, which for more than 80 percent of the comparison group was some form of center-based preschool.”

Transitional kindergarten – the first year of a two-year kindergarten program for four-year-olds who turn five Sept. 2 or later – is intended to better prepare these youngsters for kindergarten and ensure a strong start to their educational career.

State legislators established transitional kindergarten in 2010 as a way to help prepare four-year-olds who were ready to learn but missed the kindergarten age entry requirement of turning five by Sept. 1. TK, according to statute, is not a preschool or a child development program but rather uses a modified kindergarten curriculum taught by credentialed elementary teachers.

The AIR study determined the impact of California’s TK program by comparing the language, literacy, math, executive function and social-emotional skills of 2,864 kindergarten students – approximately half of whom had access to TK and half of whom did not.

Twenty California school districts and 164 elementary schools, drawn from all geographic regions of the state, participated in the study.

The most notable impact of TK, according to the analysis, was on the literacy and pre-literacy skills of the program’s students, who were “significantly better able to identify letters and words in kindergarten than their peers who did not attend TK.” The formula used by researchers to determine the extent of the TK students’ advantage showed it was equivalent to about five months of learning, they said.

Students who attended TK also had greater phonological awareness (an understanding of the sounds of letters and syllables that make up words) in kindergarten than did students who did not attend TK.

“The advantage shown by students who attended TK on these skills, which are fundamental for learning to read, places them approximately three months ahead of their peers who did not attend TK,” the authors wrote. “The effect of TK on expressive vocabulary was smaller and only marginally significant…which is not unexpected; very few early literacy interventions have been successful in increasing children’s vocabulary.”

Information about students’ skills in kindergarten was obtained from both direct student assessments – of expressive vocabulary, letter and word recognition; phonological awareness; mathematical concept knowledge; problem solving; and executive function – and surveys of teachers, who rated students’ behaviors and social skills.

Using what they call a “rigorous RD (regression discontinuity)” study method, the researchers compared the performance of students who were and were not eligible for TK, controlling for variances in age and other demographic characteristics.

In addition, they considered prior early education experiences among both the TK and comparison students, finding that more than 80 percent of students in the comparison group attended some type of center-based preschool program the year before kindergarten (while TK students were enrolled in TK), according to parent reports. And, half of all students in the comparison group attended their preschool program for at least 15 hours per week – roughly equivalent in duration to part-day TK.

TK graduates also outperformed their non-TK peers on knowledge of basic mathematical concepts and problem-solving skills in kindergarten, giving them about a three-month advantage in learning over the comparison students.

And, participation in TK gave students a relative advantage on executive function, meaning that TK graduates outperformed their peers on their ability to regulate their behavior, remember rules, and think flexibly – skills that support a solid foundation for school achievement, said researchers.

“It is important to note that this study reports results for one cohort of students – those participating in the second year of the rollout of TK (2013–14),” the authors pointed out. “Future analyses will investigate the extent to which the TK advantage is sustained through the end of kindergarten, for which groups of students TK is most beneficial, and which TK program characteristics are most supportive of student learning.”

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