Early Childhood

California’s Transitional Kindergarten Program Shows Academic Gains

By Marva Hinton — July 07, 2017 4 min read
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A new study has found promising results from California’s unusual transitional kindergarten program when it comes to how prepared young children were to enter kindergarten itself.

A study released last month by the American Institutes for Research, entitled “The Impact of Transitional Kindergarten on California Students,” looked at the program’s effectiveness in preparing students for kindergarten and improving learning outcomes. The program is only offered for students who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. The state began offering transitional kindergarten in the 2012-13 school year after it changed the cutoff date for children to turn 5 in order to begin kindergarten that year from Dec. 2 to Sept. 1.

The study found that transitional kindergarten gives students an advantage in early literacy and language skills as well as math skills. Students who attended such a program were six months ahead of their peers who didn’t in literacy skills and nearly three months ahead when it comes to problem-solving. These advantages were found for all students who attended transitional kindergarten, but the program had a particularly strong impact on the English skills of students learning the language and on the math skills of students from low-income families.

The researchers also found that the academic advantages of transitional kindergarten students grew smaller at the end of kindergarten as the other students began to catch up. And, although transitional kindergarten students did show more academic gains than their counterparts who didn’t attend the program, these students didn’t show any significant differences when it came to executive function or social skills. The researchers suggested that this may be because students in the comparison group received instruction in these areas in preschool that was comparable to transitional kindergarten.

The researchers analyzed data for students who entered kindergarten in the fall of 2014 and for those who entered in the fall of 2015. Both groups contained students who were eligible for the program and students who were not. The findings were based on both groups, which were drawn from nearly 170 elementary schools and 20 school districts broadly representative of the state. In total, more than 3,300 students attended the program, and more than 2,800 did not. Information was collected about the students in the fall and spring of the kindergarten year.

The researchers also looked at different characteristics of program classrooms to determine if some approaches or structures were more effective than others, but they didn’t really find any significant differences. This goes against previous research in the field.

For example, they studied the quality of teacher-child interactions, the impact of full-day versus half-day instruction, standalone classes versus combined transitional kindergarten and kindergarten classes, and none of those factors lessened the effectiveness of transitional kindergarten.

Researchers theorize that this may be due to some of the foundational characteristics of transitional kindergarten. For example, all of the teachers have bachelor’s degrees and about half of them have master’s degrees. And, the vast majority have taught kindergarten in the past. The classes also include students from various income levels.

“It’s more important that you have a highly qualified teacher who’s taught kindergarten before who knows how to help prepare you for the next year because she’s taught that grade, being in a public school with other students, and it’s not just income-targeted,” said Karen Manship, the study director and a principal researcher with AIR. “We think that all that might be overshadowing the specific instructional practices.”

Manship also stresses that none of the transitional kindergarten classes were doing anything that radically different from the others. They all spent 30-40 percent of their time on reading, and used a mix of small- and large-group instruction.

The study also notes that more than 80 percent of the students who did not attend transitional kindergarten attended a center-based preschool. Although this study isn’t comparing transitional kindergarten students to preschool students but rather to the many other ways a child can spend the year before kindergarten, the difference in preparedness for kindergarten is striking.

Manship theorizes that it can be attributed to the qualifications of the teachers.

“I think it does go back to the fact that [transitional kindergarten is] being taught largely by former kindergarten teachers,” said Manship. “That’s a huge factor because there’s this natural alignment to the next grade. The teachers know exactly what they’re preparing the ... students for the next year. The fact that they’re paid on par with other elementary school teachers attracts teachers to be stably in that position. There’s less turnover, and that’s really different than the preschool world.”

The report is the final in a series on the subject that AIR has issued since the program began.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.