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

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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About Scott Moore

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.

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

  1. Mary Thompson

    Scott Moore verifies something rarely acknowledged  (perhaps not even known) by proponents of preschool, early learning agendas, etc., that all of the above originated in early 19th century Germany.  Catch ‘em early to mold their brains, psychie, thought patterns and personalities before parents can do too much damage.   It wasn’t until the mid 20th Century that it has been unrelentlessly pursued in the United States corresponding to the advent of Federal involvement in schools through the Department of Education and Federal money.   Although a revealing  proposal by a spokesman for a department in the federal government (NRA) in 1933 was made when he said, “The rugged individualism of Americanism must go, because it is contrary to the purpose of the New Deal and the NRA which is remaking America.  Russia and Germany are attempting to compel a new order typical of their nationalism—compulsion.  The United States will do it by moral suasion.
    “Of course we expect some opposition, but the principles of the New Deal must be carried to the youth of  the nation.  WE EXPECT TO ACCOMPLISH BY EDUCATION WHAT DICTATORS IN EUROPE ARE SEEKING TO DO BY COMPULSION AND FORCE.  (emphasis added by this writer).
    From Monroe Evening News, Monroe, Michigan, September 12, 1933.  Original of article in possession of this writer.  

     In reviewing what the groundswell of oppostion to Family Life Education agenda which was thrust upon the nation’s schools in the 1960′s and 1970′s ,   FLE was one of the first efforts to usurp authority of the parents and family responsibility for nurturing their own children’s values and personalities along with usurping respect for that parental authority.   Implemented over oppostion, it was put into effect district by district but orchestrated nationally with the public having the impression it was education re: biological sex information.  However FLE had to do with curricula for every facet of the students’ lives.  Teachers’ guides to that end were essentially the same nationwide, and exemplified in California by the San Mateo County Family Life Educatin Guides.

    FLE was wildly successful, contributingto the “unfreezing of the the system” (a RAND Corp. term to describe the planned agenda) in order to “refreeze the system” with a new formula and foundation for schools.  “Transitional Kindergarten” is a step in that process.  Transitional Kindergarten is but one way to do  an end run incrementally around resistance to universal  oversight by schools or instruments of the state, for learning from birth (even prenatal) to adulthood.  See Santa Clara County Master Plan for early Learning.  

    Flash forward (backward) to 19th Century/20th Century Germany anyone?

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  2. el

    I hope that districts and teachers will have a lot of leeway in tailoring the program to meet the needs of the kids who show up. Much of the discussion of transitional kindergarten is focused on children who come in behind, but a fair number of those kids will be well prepared and/or gifted. The legislation is also very focused on large urban districts, who can group the 4 kindergartens they usually run into a natural TK group, without much awareness that for 2012-2013, there will be districts with only one or two children who qualify districtwide. It will be luck of the draw whether those particular kids arrive behind or ahead, and it may well be that age is not the best way to group their needs in any case.
    The option of a second year of kindergarten is great (and I wish we could offer it for all kids) – but let’s all be careful out there and not assume that our local problems are everyone’s problems with the same solutions.

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  3. Sue Moore

    Two of my three kids entered school at 4 years old. One is at Stanford, the other in 5th grade, completely able to keep up w/her peers. Two of my three  kids didn’t attend any pre-school, one of whom is an exceptional reader.  Mary and el raise excellent points, but I suspect that they will not be heeded. The valedictorian at my oldest son’s high school was a month younger than he, but was offered the choice of Yale or Stanford, as a science major. The money needs to go to the students who so need the support, not blanketed across the system so that resources are thin for those who would benefit the most. I am extremely resistant to much of what the state imposes, since it is often the rhetoric of mono-culture and control, so I would be one unhappy parent to be told my school ready October born child, already exposed to print, math, science, music, and a participant in a rich social milieu were to have to endure 14 years of school! I’d prefer that the resources provided enrichment for a child who was like I was  - without those benefits at home!

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  4. Kurt N

    I understand the argument that more schooling is better, and I understand the point about wanting to close the achievement gap by giving the opportunity of extra schooling to low-income kids and/or “our youngest school children.”
    What I don’t understand is how the present plan for Transition K advances those goals. Kids won’t be admitted to Transition K based on need or socioeconomic status, so it doesn’t target low-income kids. Kids will be admitted based on age–specifically, those who, once they’re in regular Kindergarten and advancing with that year group, will be the *oldest* kids in the cohort. These kids will have the double advantage of being the oldest and of having had an extra year of school. It will probably be a benefit to them, but how is this a good idea overall? And won’t it make the teachers’ job harder, with the spread between the most- and least-advanced students in a class wider than ever?
    How about it, Scott Moore? You’ve got people raising some concerns here. Any response?

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