Two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed off on an ambitious plan to make a pre-kindergarten program available to California’s 4-year-olds for free.
That effort, already underway, is an attempt to reduce learning disparities and improve outcomes for the state’s children.
Education officials and close observers, however, are still grappling with essential questions: Just how effective is the program, known as transitional kindergarten, or TK, and for which children is it most beneficial?
Researchers at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, explored an early version of the program in the state in a recent study. Transitional kindergarten has been available for a decade in California, on a more limited basis.
The researchers found the pre-expansion version of transitional kindergarten led to earlier identifications of students with special education needs and those who were growing up learning a language other than English. At the same time, they discovered the program did not appear to improve test results for students in third and fourth grades more than other pre-kindergarten options.
Nonetheless, transitional kindergarten has support among education experts who urged caution against reading too much into the PPIC report.
Major shifts in the program have occurred in the years after the period studied, they noted. It also only involved five large districts in the state and the tests were taken years after the students left transitional kindergarten. Beyond that, childhood development can’t just be measured by test scores alone.
The PPIC authors also said their findings weren’t a sign that the program wasn’t helping students.
Still, the results not only raise some questions about the effectiveness of transitional kindergarten in California but also highlight another concern: Despite pledging to spend several billion dollars to expand the program, the state currently has no plans to formally evaluate its benefits before it becomes available to all 4-year-olds by the 2025-26 school year.
H. Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships for Policy Analysis for California Education, a non-partisan research center, points to other unknowns.
“What do we mean when we say TK? Gallagher asked. “Because it’s not all the same, at all.”
For example, Gallagher added, districts can offer either half or full day instruction and be called transitional kindergarten. The benefits and experiences of each for students might not be the same. And the data collected by the state does not distinguish between those two options.
“We need more information about what kids are getting in TK,” Gallagher said, “in order to understand what program features are effective.”
Sarah Neville-Morgan, a deputy superintendent of public instruction for the California Department of Education, said the research from the PPIC and others helps the department refine and improve. Next year, the agency plans to release standards for transitional kindergarten that will identify skills children can develop while in it.
As for evaluating the program, Neville-Morgan said that is hard to do while it is still being rolled out.
“You actually have to wait until things are stable, fully implemented,” she said, ”to be able to look at true effectiveness.”
Research has shown that early childhood education programs benefit students in the classroom and beyond. One study found California students who attended an early version of transitional kindergarten entered kindergarten with stronger math and literacy skills than those who didn’t. Less is known about the program’s longer-term benefits.
Head Start, which is federally funded, and the California State Preschool Program are among other pre-kindergarten options. Like those, transitional kindergarten is not mandatory. It is, however, the only program that will be available and free for all 4-year-olds.
One benefit of funding the program is that it provides access to a preschool option “in every corner of the state,” said Jessica Holmes, a chief deputy executive director with the State Board of Education, in an emailed statement. Elementary or unified school districts must offer transitional kindergarten. “While not every community has a Head Start or State Preschool program, they all have public schools and options to meet their needs.”
Deborah Stipek, an professor emerita at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said the program is still developing and may look different once it is fully implemented.
“In a way,” Stipek said, “we created TK and now we’re catching up with all the policies that are needed to make it work effectively.”
The current expansion concerns Bruce Fuller, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Education.
“We don’t have real-time evidence as to whether this spending is really paying off for kids,” Fuller said.
That includes knowing more about how transitional kindergarten compares with other subsidized preschool options.
“Given the scope,” Fuller said, “it’s shocking that the administration is not carefully trying to commission an evaluation to see if there are short-term and immediate-term benefits to 4-year-olds.”
Holmes said the state is reviewing the transitional kindergarten program, and other preschool options, on an ongoing basis.
State education and social services agencies have formed a group of experts to analyze the quality of and access to all of the state’s preschool options, she added, including transitional kindergarten. The group plans to provide recommendations to the Legislature and Governor’s Office by March, Holmes said.
Neville-Morgan, from the education department, said the agency is hoping a long-term study of the program will eventually occur.
“It would have to happen through the budget process,” she said, “and that isn’t something that we have right now.”
In the meantime, E’Leva Gibson, an assistant superintendent for early learning and care at the Sacramento City Unified School District, is looking for more information.
While calling transitional kindergarten a “wonderful thing” Gibson also wants to know how to make it better and how to best measure students’ progress once they leave the program.
“How are we ensuring that what we’re doing is going to lead to improving outcomes?” Gibson asked.
The answer to that question is still in the works — while hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars continue to be spent.