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We’ve created transitional kindergarten; now, how and what to teach them?

11.08.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education Blog | Scott Moore

My college mentor, renowned political scientist James Q. Wilson, always said that more important than getting the right answer is asking the right question. This week, about 500 educators and policymakers from across California came together at the Transitional Kindergarten Implementation Summit to ask questions and to hear practical information for getting California’s groundbreaking transitional kindergarten (TK) classrooms up and running in school districts around the state beginning in Fall 2012.

With three years to fully implement TK, educators have some time to explore what are the best questions, test out some answers, and see what works. Here are some thoughts on a few questions as California embarks on implementing TK for the 130,000 four-year-olds already eligible for kindergarten each year.

What is transitional kindergarten?

The law that established TK, Senate Bill 1381, called it the first year of a two-year kindergarten experience for children who turn 5 between September and December. California first established public kindergarten in 1891 as a two-year program. As designed by Friedrich Froebel of Germany in the 1830s, kindergarten was originally for children ages 3 to 6, which today sounds a lot like preschool. During the Great Depression, the California Legislature cut its fledgling kindergarten program from two years to one, voting to override a veto by then Gov. James Rolph.

In his veto message, Gov. Rolph wrote, “It is in the kindergarten that the children are of the age when they are most impressionable, and receive their first directed training in social values, language, habits, and character.” It is fitting that during the Great Recession, California made the right decision for children by expanding access instead of decreasing it, although we are fortunate to be able to do this without any new costs to the state until 2025.

So whether one considers TK a new grade for four-year-olds, a return to the original kindergarten, or a new pre-K program, the fact is it does not matter so much what we call it or how we define it. What matters is what we do with it.

Why do we need TK?

Some have argued that moving up the kindergarten entry date alone is good for children. This proposal, which has been rejected numerous times by former legislatures and governors over the last 30 years, would essentially kick 130,000 four-year-olds out of school each year. Proponents justify this by saying children will be better off a year older, and their test scores will be higher.

However, California’s resident expert on this issue, Dean Deborah Stipek of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, makes a compelling case for why TK is critical in her article “At What Age Should Children Enter Kindergarten?: A Question for Policy Makers and Parents.” The question Dean Stipek asked was, “Which is more important, being a year older or having a year of schooling?” After analyzing data from numerous studies, she found that the test score gains for children who wait a year to start school fade out a few years later. Furthermore, she found that attending a year of school, regardless of age, is more valuable than waiting out a year, especially for low-income children. This research confirms what common sense tells us when we consider the fact that the achievement gap exists well before children enter school. Given that so many studies find that pre-K is a proven, cost-effective intervention to closing the readiness gap, the value of TK becomes clear. TK is a lot like preventative medicine in that it is cheaper and better for the patient in the long run.

What is most important for children to learn in TK?

This is a common question for educators beginning to think about TK implementation. However, it would be a mistake to single out any of the usual suspects like English language arts or math or social-emotional development, because all of these are important. In contrast, educators ought to pay as much if not more attention to how we teach children as what we teach children. Individualized, differentiated instruction, whether it is in a standalone TK classroom or a TK-K combined classroom, is critical for student learning. This is because children, especially young children, learn in different ways and different rates and have a broad spectrum of typical development.

Also critical is infusing exposure to rich oral and printed language throughout a child’s day, whether learning about math, history, science, or empathy. By providing instruction rich in oral language and print, teachers begin to close the vocabulary gap. A typical low-income kindergartener knows about 2,000 words, in contrast to a typical upper-income kindergartener, who knows about 20,000 words. To be successful readers, children need to know and read 10,000 to 12,000 words by the end of third grade. Further complicating this challenge is the fact that about 41 percent of our kindergarteners are English learners. Given both the vocabulary gap and a large population of dual language learners, the critical importance of language-rich instruction is clear.

The Transitional Kindergarten Implementation Summit marked the beginning of a new chapter for early education in California. By giving our youngest school children the gift of a kindergarten readiness year, we have an unprecedented opportunity to improve student achievement and narrow the achievement gap. Transitional kindergarten represents the best investment California can afford to make. This investment in our youngest school children helps lay the foundation for a future skilled workforce and a strong economy.

Scott Moore is the senior policy advisor at Preschool California, a nonprofit advocacy organization working to increase access to high-quality early learning for all of California’s children, starting with those who need it most.

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