Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

Children who attended transitional kindergarten performed better on language, literacy and math skills when they started kindergarten, compared to their peers who weren’t in the program, according to a new report.

The American Institutes for Research on Tuesday released its first report that examines the impact of California’s transitional kindergarten program, which was created through the California Kindergarten Readiness Act in 2010.

Transitional kindergarten is a unique, state-funded program that allows children to get an extra year of schooling before kindergarten if their 5th birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. Lawmakers added the new grade after they changed the cutoff birthdate for kindergarten, which required children to turn 5 by Sept. 1 in order to enroll. About 83,000 children attended transitional kindergarten, also known as TK, in 2014-15.

“This study finds that transitional kindergarten does appear to provide students with an advantage in terms of their kindergarten readiness,” said Heather Quick, one of the study’s authors and the principal investigator.

When they started kindergarten, children who attended transitional kindergarten were academically as much as five months ahead of their peers, who were a similar age, the report shows. Researchers found that transitional kindergarten students had higher literacy skills, such as identifying letters and sounds, and more advanced math skills, such as counting objects and completing word problems, than those who did not go to transitional kindergarten.

The study also found that transitional kindergarten students had “greater executive function” – skills, such as remembering the rules and controlling impulses. However, the study found no major differences between the two groups in social and emotional skills.

The study examined assessments and teacher surveys from two groups of kindergartners:

  • 1,562 children who attended transitional kindergarten and whose birthdays were between Oct. 1 and Dec. 2.
  • 1,302 children who were ineligible for transitional kindergarten because their birthdays were between Dec. 3 and Feb. 2.
  • All children in the study attended kindergarten in 2013-14 at 164 elementary schools in 20 districts.

Quick said researchers wanted to compare children who were close in age. More than 80 percent of the comparison children attended some type of center-based preschool, such as private campuses or Head Start.

“We’re not trying to pit TK against preschool,” Quick said. “What we can say is that TK appears to have an impact on student learning compared with the business-as-usual scenario. That is, what kids would have received had they not gone to TK.”

A December 2015 report shows that transitional kindergarten had stronger academic performance than a comparison group by the time they got to kindergarten. Click on the graphic for a larger image.

American Institutes for Research

A December 2015 report shows that children in transitional kindergarten performed stronger academically than a comparison group by the time they got to kindergarten. Click on the graphic for a larger image.

The report highlighted a few major differences between transitional kindergarten and preschool.

Transitional kindergarten teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees and teaching credentials, while preschool teachers often don’t have degrees. The California State Preschool Program, for example, requires only a permit that is obtained after completing 40 college units.

“Many of the TK teachers taught kindergarten so they are very familiar with the curriculum,” Quick said.

Also, transitional kindergarten is part of the K-12 school system, which means that classes are run largely by public school districts on elementary campuses.

“There is likely to be more alignment between TK and the school’s K-3 experience than between other early education programs and the K-3 experience,” the report states. “This close alignment may help TK be more successful in increasing students’ kindergarten readiness.”

The report says that school district leaders may look at the results of the study when deciding whether to expand transitional kindergarten for younger 4-year-olds. A state law change earlier this year allows school districts to use their own money to pay for transitional kindergarten for more 4-year-olds – those who turn 5 after Dec. 2.

Leaders from Early Edge, a group that advocates for early education, praised the report for showing how transitional kindergarten can work.

“Children in transitional kindergarten are getting a significant boost in kindergarten readiness,” Deborah Kong, president of Early Edge California, said in a statement. “AIR’s research confirms that California made a smart investment in TK. Now with new clarity in law about funding for expanded TK, districts are encouraged to offer an additional option to young learners and their families to build a strong foundation for success in school.”

Erin Gabel, the deputy director of First 5 California, said the report “validates the investment California has made in that cohort of children.” She said she hopes it will encourage legislators and others “to think more broadly about early learning as a strategy to close the achievement gap.”

EdSource reporter Susan Frey contributed to this report.


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  1. Greg 3 months ago3 months ago

    This is a classic case of a high techical quality in a study that is addressing the wrong research question. The authors state, “What we can say is that TK appears to have an impact on student learning compared with the business-as-usual scenario. That is, what kids would have received had they not gone to TK" (and instead attended a regular preschool or nothing at all). Yet, under the "business-as-usual scenario" these kids … Read More

    This is a classic case of a high techical quality in a study that is addressing the wrong research question. The authors state, “What we can say is that TK appears to have an impact on student learning compared with the business-as-usual scenario. That is, what kids would have received had they not gone to TK” (and instead attended a regular preschool or nothing at all). Yet, under the “business-as-usual scenario” these kids would be in kindergarten and not preschool or nothing at all. That is because the California law was changed so that kids must turn 5 before Sept. 2nd rather than before Dec. 2nd. to addressed supposed issues of unpreparedness for kindergarten among the formerly youngest kids and TK was offered to those kids instead. Therefore, to test the effectiveness of the policy and program, the study should test whether doing TK results in better development (academic, social, and otherwise) for kids born in Sept., Oct., and Nov., compared with starting in kindergarten.

    Moreover, the “intervention” cost over $10,000 per child and adds a year of formal education, so any cost-benefits analysis would need to examine whether it has a demonstrated long term or even permanent effect on outcomes, and not just an effect at the end of the year and that there are not other equally or more effective interventions for less than $10,000 per child.

  2. Brenda Jenkins 8 months ago8 months ago

    Are there plans for a longitudinal study to see if the Transitional Kindergarten students continue their academic advantage in future grades?

  3. Blanca 9 months ago9 months ago

    Ruth and Christina you bring up some good interesting points. With 27 years of experience teaching young children, I am interested in learning what kinds of developmentally appropriate programs you would implement for preschoolers and kindergarteners. I have a 4 year old in a private preschool and a 5 year old in a public preschool and I am constantly going back and forth between keeping them in school or homeschooling. Although, having them in … Read More

    Ruth and Christina you bring up some good interesting points.
    With 27 years of experience teaching young children, I am interested in learning what kinds of developmentally appropriate programs you would implement for preschoolers and kindergarteners. I have a 4 year old in a private preschool and a 5 year old in a public preschool and I am constantly going back and forth between keeping them in school or homeschooling. Although, having them in school for now is helping me to complete my masters degree in education. With my background in education and some teaching experience, I feel that I can provide a good learning environment for my kids. But unfortunately, many parents cannot, do not know how, or simply do not want to teach their own kids. So for these kids, maybe they are better off at public school more time than at home.

  4. Ruth 9 months ago9 months ago

    Why did researchers only look at how students preformed in first grade? We already know that retained students show academic improvement the first year. It appears to me that policy makers paid to have research done that would support current policies. Over 100 years of long-term studies show that retention doesn't improve outcomes. The researchers admit this in their paper "TK students also have, in effect, two years of kindergarten, which, in some ways, is … Read More

    Why did researchers only look at how students preformed in first grade? We already know that retained students show academic improvement the first year. It appears to me that policy makers paid to have research done that would support current policies. Over 100 years of long-term studies show that retention doesn’t improve outcomes. The researchers admit this in their paper “TK students also have, in effect, two years of kindergarten, which, in some ways, is like repeating (being retained in) kindergarten. Research on students who are retained in kindergarten shows that short-term outcomes may improve, but those gains are not maintained over the long term.”
    Instead of retaining students who fail to conform to developmentally inappropriate standards, we ought to be providing them with programs that are based on the way young children actually learn. Finland and many other countries that have better literacy rates than the U.S. do not begin academic instruction until age seven. Of course, that kind of program requires a smaller pupil to teacher ratio and therefore costs more money. People don’t want to have to pay for it. Public education is not a priority in this country.

  5. Cathy Shaw 9 months ago9 months ago

    I wish more states would have TK. I strongly urge parents to put their children in Pre school but many can not afford it and it is not all day. I hae many students who are repeating kindergarten due to no pre-school and I feel it is better for them to be here learning something than to be at home another year learning nothing. With class sizes getting larger, and lack of instructional assistants to … Read More

    I wish more states would have TK. I strongly urge parents to put their children in Pre school but many can not afford it and it is not all day.
    I hae many students who are repeating kindergarten due to no pre-school and I feel it is better for them to be here learning something than to be at home another year learning nothing. With class sizes getting larger, and lack of instructional assistants to assist with larger class sizes, it is very difficult for a teachers with this age of child.
    I

    Replies

    • Ruth 9 months ago9 months ago

      Why do you assume children staying at home an extra year "learn nothing"? I think many parents can provide better learning environments for their children than public schools do. What kind of education can five-year-olds get when they are in a classroom with 30 students and one teacher? I would have kept my son out of preschool and kindergarten if I could have afforded to stay home. Preschool and kindergarten in … Read More

      Why do you assume children staying at home an extra year “learn nothing”? I think many parents can provide better learning environments for their children than public schools do. What kind of education can five-year-olds get when they are in a classroom with 30 students and one teacher? I would have kept my son out of preschool and kindergarten if I could have afforded to stay home. Preschool and kindergarten in this country are of poor quality. I say this as someone who has taught young children for 27 years. I quit teaching kindergarten about 12 years ago because I could not stand to be part of what is being done to our young children. Class sizes in my state are too large to be very effective and are really not even safe. Also, current programs are based on standards that are not developmentally appropriate. Instead of retaining students, (TK is retention, no matter what you want to call it, there is still a stigma attached), we should be reducing kindergarten class sizes and providing programs that are developmentally appropriate.

  6. Mary Foster 9 months ago9 months ago

    Of course they were ahead…they’re the oldest quarter of Kindergarten now instead of the youngest. If we had TK for the youngest quarter, it would make more sense.

    Replies

    • Sarah Tully 9 months ago9 months ago

      Hi Mary,

      I had the same thought originally. The researchers only compared students who were close in age to those who attended TK and then they controlled for the age differences in the findings. Their report explains the process for controlling for age differences, if you want the details.

      Sarah

  7. Discrimination is not ok 9 months ago9 months ago

    I hope that T-K is expanded to all children that are expected to start Kindergarten in the same year. My child is ineligible to attend T-K due to her birth date. However, she will be starting kindergarten in September, with children that HAVE attended TK. It is not fair. In addition, my family is incurring $20,000 in child care costs because my child is ineligible for free public TK. My child is being harmed educationally and we … Read More

    I hope that T-K is expanded to all children that are expected to start Kindergarten in the same year.

    My child is ineligible to attend T-K due to her birth date. However, she will be starting kindergarten in September, with children that HAVE attended TK. It is not fair.

    In addition, my family is incurring $20,000 in child care costs because my child is ineligible for free public TK.

    My child is being harmed educationally and we are being harmed financially by California’s discriminatory public school policy.

    Replies

    • Gary Ravani 9 months ago9 months ago

      All CA's students are "discriminated against" because CA, even with the economic boom and Prop 30, remains in the bottom ten of the 50 states (according to EdWeek) in K-12 funding per child in cost-of-living weighted dollars. It was an uphill climb politically to get the TK funding levels that are in place now. Parents need to support the passage of the "new" Prop 30 as well as a revision of Prop 13 to get … Read More

      All CA’s students are “discriminated against” because CA, even with the economic boom and Prop 30, remains in the bottom ten of the 50 states (according to EdWeek) in K-12 funding per child in cost-of-living weighted dollars. It was an uphill climb politically to get the TK funding levels that are in place now. Parents need to support the passage of the “new” Prop 30 as well as a revision of Prop 13 to get CA’s funding up to a “national standard.”

    • ann 9 months ago9 months ago

      You are being "harmed financially"? I guess you expect taxpayers to babysit your kids without charge. This "study" flaws were apparent as the first comment already pointed out. My school has a PK and TK. There is no question the state was ill prepared to start TK but now have a decent program available. We see very little difference in student outcomes in K from either program for students who have spent their first … Read More

      You are being “harmed financially”? I guess you expect taxpayers to babysit your kids without charge. This “study” flaws were apparent as the first comment already pointed out. My school has a PK and TK. There is no question the state was ill prepared to start TK but now have a decent program available. We see very little difference in student outcomes in K from either program for students who have spent their first four years without much in the way of appropriate adult attention especially language development.

  8. Christina 9 months ago9 months ago

    I highly doubt TK programs are equal in comparison to fully operational functioning high quality preschool programs. I know for a fact there are many TK teachers who are NOT qualified and thrown into a classroom with 25 or more 4 year olds who are not yet developmentally ready for the K-12 curriculum - sitting down and doing dittos! These children need more support and a teacher who has knowledge of how to speak to … Read More

    I highly doubt TK programs are equal in comparison to fully operational functioning high quality preschool programs. I know for a fact there are many TK teachers who are NOT qualified and thrown into a classroom with 25 or more 4 year olds who are not yet developmentally ready for the K-12 curriculum – sitting down and doing dittos! These children need more support and a teacher who has knowledge of how to speak to and work with young learners, such as our preschool teachers. These teachers may only have 60 plus units but its in child development, of which k-12 teachers have 0! Just because you teach in a classroom doesn’t make you qualified to teach young children. I challenge all TK teachers to implementing the DRDP to assess their children and classrooms knowledge and abilities and compare it to operational state preschool programs. I challenge all TK teachers to be CLASSed, which is an assessment tool for instructional support, and I guarantee their children will not be as ready as they would have been in a state-funded program, and their teachers will not have scored above the national average. We have measures to hold us accountable for students’ learning and teacher instruction that supports social-emotional needs, critical thinking and language development. The TK program is a slap to the face of early educators. More intensive research needs to be conducted to see the real picture of what is going on in the TK classroom.

    Replies

    • Ruth 9 months ago9 months ago

      Bravo, Christina! My sentiments exactly.

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