English learner students who attend transitional kindergarten start off ahead

Dan Tuffs for KPCC

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California kids whose primary language is not English do better in kindergarten if they attend transitional kindergarten programs when they’re four.

That's according to a new study from the American Institutes for Research, which found English learners who went to transitional kindergarten outperformed those who didn’t in math, language and literacy, and English proficiency. 

Transitional kindergarten is California's newest public school grade, established in 2010 after the legislature changed the cutoff dates for kindergarten admission. The grade serves students with birthdays between September 2nd and December 2nd, offering them a year of instruction to prepare them for the rigors of kindergarten.

"This is really promising research for kids who come from families who speak another language at home," said Early Edge Director Deborah Kong. "We know that it’s critical to support the development of dual language learner skills at a young age or they could start school behind, and instead they’re getting a strong academic advantage in TK."

This finding lines up with what educators know about transitional kindergarten, in general, Kong said.

"Children who attend high quality early learning are more likely to score higher on tests, less likely to be retained a grade, less likely to be placed in special education, and then, down the road, they’re more likely to graduate from high school, to be employed, to have higher paying jobs," Kong said.

However, the study also found children who did not attend TK had largely closed that gap by the end of kindergarten. Dean Tagawa, head of early education for LAUSD, said that's important information, too.

"It seems like we’re doing a really good job with moving our kids who are struggling at the beginning of the year to higher levels," Tagawa said. "How do we take kids who are already at a higher level and move them even higher?"

According to Tagawa, the solution may lie in helping teachers tailor their instruction more to the needs of individual students. "So maybe the one group that rotates through is learning to count to five, but the other group that is rotating through is able to count to one hundred. We might as well start working with that group to push them ahead further."

The study found TK led to early advantages in kindergarten for Spanish speaking children, as well as children whose first language was an Asian language.