Author Archives: Scott Moore

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.

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.

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

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.