State and federal investments in transitional kindergarten for all 4-year-olds — if done right — has the potential to transform education for all of California’s young learners, panelists said Thursday at EdSource’s roundtable on the topic.

“My hope is that this federal money will be a booster for us in California that will allow us to think big time, think long term,” said panelist Vickie Ramos Harris, director of educational equity for Advancement Project California. “It can help us stay on track for what we need to do for our babies and our early childhood workforce.”

Universal Transitional Kindergarten: What Parents Need to Know,” a virtual roundtable webinar hosted by EdSource, covered topics such as early childhood brain development, equity and social justice, the teacher shortage, ideal teacher-student ratios and the pandemic’s impact on transitional kindergarten classrooms.

Panelists included policymakers, a TK teacher, advocates and academic researchers.

Transitional kindergarten has been a part of California schools for years. It was originally designed for 4-year-olds whose birthdays fall between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2 as a steppingstone between preschool and kindergarten. But amid calls for expanded preschool and other programs to benefit young children, California set aside $2.7 billion in its 2021-22 budget to expand the program to all 4-year-olds, not just those with fall birthdays.

The Biden administration has also prioritized early childhood programs and included money in the current spending bill to fund transitional kindergarten, preschool and other programs. The bill is awaiting a vote in Congress.

California’s plan, known as universal TK, will be phased in beginning in 2022 and is expected to include all of the state’s 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.

Universal TK is considered important because it could help narrow the academic achievement gap between children whose families can afford high-quality preschool and those whose can’t, panelists said. Children who fall behind academically in the early years often have difficulty catching up and sometimes face long-term challenges as a result.

“There’s a real opportunity here,” said Samantha Tran, managing director for education policy at Children Now. “Not only does California have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country, but those gaps begin before children even walk through the door of kindergarten. That’s why this is so important.”

Deborah Stipek, former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, noted that transitional kindergarten can benefit children’s brain development, but the program must be high-quality and led by trained teachers.

Finding enough trained teachers as well as teaching assistants for the TK expansion will be a challenge, she said. California is already experiencing a dire teacher shortage.

“The biggest concern, right now, is staffing,” she said. “We need to think more broadly about the issue of how we recruit and train the people who will take care of our youngest children.”

California will need an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 new teachers and 16,000 new teaching assistants as transitional kindergarten expands, Tran said.

Teaching assistants and a low teacher-to-student ratio will be key to making TK a success, said Paula Merrigan, a TK teacher in Castro Valley Unified. She said she occasionally has 26 children in a classroom, and even a part-time assistant makes a world of difference. It allows her to focus on children’s individual needs, such as motor skills, counting, learning to write their names or to help them navigate social and emotional difficulties, without the pressure of kindergarten standards.

Ultimately, that’s what TK should be about, Merrigan said.

“TK is geared more toward preschool. It’s a bridge between the two. In TK, students learn by playing, by doing, by exploration,” she said. “We call it the gift of time.”

Panelists were hopeful about the state and federal commitment to young children but acknowledged the hurdles ahead. Staffing shortages, in particular, will be a significant barrier to a smooth rollout of transitional kindergarten in all California schools.

“I am thrilled the Biden administration is prioritizing this,” Tran said. “But that doesn’t get California off the hook. We have a responsibility to map a path forward.”

For more on this EdSource Roundtable topic, please watch the video above.

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  1. Dr. Barbara L Peterson 2 months ago2 months ago

    In our rural remote locations during Covid, we lost the few day care and PreK program options we had. Concern about Covid infecting vulnerable family members was a big concern especially for our American Indian and Latino families, so even families who had placements kept their toddlers home for health reasons. They worried, however, about their child’s kindergarten readiness. My agency developed a 6-month, home-taught English/Spanish curriculum to help families teach basic PreK skills. … Read More

    In our rural remote locations during Covid, we lost the few day care and PreK program options we had. Concern about Covid infecting vulnerable family members was a big concern especially for our American Indian and Latino families, so even families who had placements kept their toddlers home for health reasons. They worried, however, about their child’s kindergarten readiness.

    My agency developed a 6-month, home-taught English/Spanish curriculum to help families teach basic PreK skills. Family members (parents, grandparents, older siblings) helped toddlers complete lessons, in English or Spanish, that included free play, outdoor learning, games for executive functioning, as well as academic skills that fit our state early childhood guidelines. Each month another pizza box of materials would arrive.

    In September, families started to enroll their children in kindergarten. One parent told us that the teacher did a soft assessment and said, jokingly, to the student: “Well, since you know all of your alphabet and numbers, I don’t know what else to teach you this year,” a relief to his mother.

    My agency is located on an Indian reservation; I worry that the earlier and earlier we are taking students out of the home into PreK facilities for their education, we are behaving as if families are not competent to raise their own child. What we should have learned in the Covid was how critical homes and families can be in the true education of a child. We should be asking ourselves if we have done nearly enough to honor parents as assets and the first and always teacher for their child. We should find ways to share information about brain development and the learning standards and milestones for 3, 4, and 5 with parents and families of 3, 4 and 5 year olds. We should worry that the educational bureaucracy is too eager to presume we alone have the skills/competence/motivation to be educators of little ones.

  2. Karen Meyer 2 months ago2 months ago

    By the time a child is 4, we’ve already lost so much opportunity to help them build vocabulary and develop confidence as a learner. We must give our support to parents! Give them guidance, resources, and support to encourage and enrich their children as a normal part of every day. Parents want to help their children succeed and if they knew how to help, they would. Let’s focus on supporting parents. We can … Read More

    By the time a child is 4, we’ve already lost so much opportunity to help them build vocabulary and develop confidence as a learner. We must give our support to parents! Give them guidance, resources, and support to encourage and enrich their children as a normal part of every day.

    Parents want to help their children succeed and if they knew how to help, they would. Let’s focus on supporting parents. We can reach children earlier and more consistently if we work with parents.

  3. Laurie Gallagher 2 months ago2 months ago

    As a T.K. Teacher I am concerned that 1) District administration is viewing universal TK as a chance to push academics in younger students (they don’t understand what they, as administrators, don’t know about early learning) and 2) that a Requirement of any new classroom for TK include restrooms either in or immediately adjacent (one year my students had to go a long way out of sight by themselves to the restroom). It would … Read More

    As a T.K. Teacher I am concerned that 1) District administration is viewing universal TK as a chance to push academics in younger students (they don’t understand what they, as administrators, don’t know about early learning) and 2) that a Requirement of any new classroom for TK include restrooms either in or immediately adjacent (one year my students had to go a long way out of sight by themselves to the restroom). It would be easy to dismiss my two concerns with a knee jerk response “of course!” but without requiring training for administrators and requiring the restrooms in or adjacent these will not be addressed. Remember universal TK will bring in students who are much closer to their potty training phase.

    Replies

    • Ranjana Subrmanian 2 months ago2 months ago

      I am a preschool teacher for past 17 plus years . I feel with this new move of universal TK and that teachers need to be credentialed, experienced and qualified early childhood teachers like me who value play based developmentally appropriate teaching practices will be completely sidelined. I agree that TK will become more of a water down form of Kindergarten which is not only sad but just not right for these young … Read More

      I am a preschool teacher for past 17 plus years . I feel with this new move of universal TK and that teachers need to be credentialed, experienced and qualified early childhood teachers like me who value play based developmentally appropriate teaching practices will be completely sidelined. I agree that TK will become more of a water down form of Kindergarten which is not only sad but just not right for these young kids. I wonder if anybody pays attention to the research and studies that have gone into the field of early childhood education and as to how young children learn.

  4. Janet Staats 2 months ago2 months ago

    Well said Andrea R. and Carol Wheeler. I agree with both of you 100%. These children will be burned out from school before they get to high school.

  5. Agusta Brown 2 months ago2 months ago

    When this happens it should not be about schooling, it should be about play and immersion in their world. Take them on lots of field trips to local museums and cultural centers. Kids in California already drop out at an incredible rate because of burnout. Adding another year of school with hard-core academics will not help that.

  6. Andrea R 2 months ago2 months ago

    I am a Preschool teacher and I feel that a preschool teacher along with a credentialed teacher would be more beneficial for the children in the classroom together. It is important to have an experienced early childhood teacher in the classroom as well since they are well trained in social emotional development, learning through play, and can bring in so much knowledge and experiences for young children. Blending the two would make it a “Quality UTK Experience”.

  7. Carol Wheeler 2 months ago2 months ago

    Deborah highlighted the impact of a HIGH QUALITY transitional kindergarten. California has already demonstrated the lack of oversight for developmentally appropriate curriculum, environments, and daily schedule routines. Since 2012, the state has failed to do this. I have observed this in our county. It makes me sad that these 4-year olds are being immersed in a program that is attempting to push kindergarten curriculum (developmentally inappropriate itself) on them. Everything research has discovered is being ignored by the state.