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Top pre-K priorities: transitional kindergarten, child care inspections

08.28.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education | Scott Moore

Earlier this summer, in his 2011-12 budget, Gov. Brown proposed reducing the size of state government by eliminating more than 40 state councils and committees. I recently stepped down as Executive Director from one of these councils, the Early Learning Advisory Council (ELAC). The Brown administration is still deciding what to do with ELAC, including considering a proposal to reconstitute an existing committee under the California Department of Education. Likely the best way to move forward, this proposal would eliminate the Council, hand off its important work to an existing committee, and retain the $10.8 million in federal dollars that goes with it. While the fate of the ELAC is unclear, one thing remains certain: The critical work of better preparing our most vulnerable children for success in school and life must continue.

Preschool isn’t the stuff for which governors are remembered, but it is one of the few areas where a little progress can go a long way towards improving California’s socioeconomic well being. A mountain of results, from economics to education to neuroscience, have compelled the leaders of business, education, and law enforcement to champion investing in young children to reap long-term benefits. And over the next several years, the Brown administration has significant opportunities to make real progress for California’s youngest children, even with no new state funding. Here are just two ideas to start:

  • Make implementation of transitional kindergarten a top priority. The last time California created a grade was in 1891, when kindergarten was established. In 2010, SB 1381 (Simitian/Steinberg) created transitional kindergarten, or TK, for the 130,000 4-year-olds eligible each year for kindergarten. Evidence and the experience of many teachers and parents suggest that most 4-year-olds are too young for California’s academically rigorous kindergarten, and that a year of preparation, such as TK, would better prepare them for success in kindergarten and help to close the achievement gap.

Hundreds of new TK classrooms will be opening this month, beginning the march towards a total of 6,000 classrooms over the next four years. Surveys of district administrators and teachers show that while they don’t want too much state intervention, they are asking for help with defining TK by creating a bridge between the existing kindergarten standards and preschool learning foundations. Specifically, they are asking for support in identifying best practices and models for professional development, curriculum, and appropriate evaluation. Several early adopter districts are doing groundbreaking work, like creating new curricular models based on the latest brain development research on how dual language learners most effectively acquire language. A good beginning to sharing this work can be found at www.tkcalifornia.org.

But the opportunity TK presents is bigger than just a new grade. It is the opportunity to focus all of early education on what should be its top priority: every child reading by the end of third grade. The reason this is so important is simple: until third grade, children are learning to read; after third grade, children are reading to learn. Yet to be effective learners, children must develop what Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman calls “soft skills,” or what neuroscientists refer to as “executive function.” Parents and teachers describe it as mindfulness, paying attention, good decision-making, concentration, conflict resolution, and empathy. Supporting this social-emotional development is what preschools are often best at, and what has been typically neglected by elementary schools, which are driven to narrowly focus on language arts and math. Where elementary schools place their emphasis, language arts and math, preschools generally have room for improvement. If TK is used as a bridge between preschool and elementary, this would support all of early education to focus on the whole child, with the ultimate goal of children learning to read by the end of third grade.

  • Protect our children in child care. California currently ranks 50th among states for our oversight of child care facilities. That is because the state requires facilities to be visited only once every five years. Given that the state visits nail salons once every other year, how come we have not figured out how to do better for our children?  As it happens, we should applaud the administrators at California’s Child Care Licensing division because they have figured out how to do it better. It is a new monitoring system, which the division has successfully piloted, called “New Directions.” It is simple: Licensing analysts focus on the health and safety indicators that research shows matter, and this cuts the time it takes to visit a facility by half or more, making the increased number of visits cost-neutral. Other states have been doing this successfully for years. Division administrators say that, if the pilot were fully implemented, child care centers would be visited once a year, and family child care homes once every other year. California already charges more fees for child care licensing than most states, yet we are ranked dead last in oversight. The solution is simple, tested, and cost-neutral. The Brown administration ought to order its immediate implementation.

Over the last two years, child care and development programs, including preschool, have sustained a devastating cut of 23 percent, resulting in the elimination of services to more than 50,000 children. In the midst of these cuts, it is even more important for all of us to be creative and focused on what we can do now to make real improvements for our youngest children.

Scott Moore is the senior policy adviser at Preschool California, a non-profit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most. He is the former executive director for the California Early Learning Advisory Council.

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