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Early-Education Research: Transitional-Kindergarten Evaluation in San Francisco

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This week we are hearing from the Stanford-San Francisco Unified School District Partnership. Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective on this research.

This post is by Christopher Doss, who is a doctoral candidate at the Stanford School of Education and the Center for Education Policy Analysis. Christopher can be reached at [email protected]

The Stanford-San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) research-practice partnership is a unique program that brings together researchers and practitioners to collaborate, exchange ideas, and leverage each other's expertise. As a researcher within that partnership, my goal is to contribute to fielding timely studies that provide useable knowledge to teachers and administrators as well as interesting information to the broader field. I have worked on a number of studies with SFUSD, together with my advisor Susanna Loeb, Barnett Family Professor of Education at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. In this post, I'd like to share recent findings from an evaluation study of a new prekindergarten program in San Francisco called Transitional Kindergarten (TK).

The Kindergarten Readiness Act, signed into law by then Governor Schwarzenegger in 2010, required all districts in California to offer TK beginning in the 2012-2013 school year. The state provided little guidance on the implementation of the program: only that it was meant to be the first year in a two-year kindergarten sequence for young 5-year-olds. Between 2010 and 2012, SFUSD built this new grade level from scratch. Administrators worked to create a homegrown curriculum that was the middle ground between their prekindergarten and kindergarten programs. 

Through the Stanford-SFUSD partnership I had the opportunity to use the district's data to evaluate the TK program. I leveraged the age eligibility requirements to compare the outcomes of students who attended TK to students who attended San Francisco's universal prekindergarten program. TK differs from the universal prekindergarten program in that it is folded into the larger K-12 system, employs teachers that are more highly educated and compensated, and offers a more academically focused curriculum established by SFUSD.

The study answered two research questions:

(1) What is the effect of Transitional Kindergarten on student literacy skills and attendance in kindergarten and first grade, when compared to San Francisco's universal prekindergarten program?

(2) Do the effects vary by student ethnicity or other characteristics like English Learner status?

I analyzed the performance of all students on the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (BAS), which measures pre-literacy skills such as letter and word recognition, as well as a child's ability to read books. Additionally, I analyzed the performance of English Learners on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which measures the listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills of children whose first language is not English.

Results show that San Francisco's TK program provides many benefits to students. Kindergarteners who attended TK outperformed their peers on all pre-literacy skills measured by the BAS. Kindergarten English Learner students who attended TK also outperformed their peers on all subsections of the CELDT. In first grade the advantages on the CELDT remained, but students saw no advantage in the ability to read books. Also, the pre-literacy advantages are concentrated on minority students. Asian students, who are an economically diverse group in San Francisco, saw the greatest benefits from TK, while white students saw no detectable benefits. Asian students were also the only subgroup to experience benefits in attendance and were absent 1.3 fewer days in kindergarten.

Taken together, the study provided valuable information to state policymakers and San Francisco district leaders, as well as the early childhood education literature.

From a policy perspective, this study provides the State of California with information on the effectiveness of a new, expensive state-mandated grade in one of its largest districts. Policymakers now know that they are funding a program that, at least in San Francisco, does provide benefits over other prekindergarten programs.

From the district's perspective, this study indicates that their efforts to create a grade from the ground up were successful. The mixed results also illuminate the strengths and weaknesses of the program: pre-literacy skills were affected, but not the ability to read. These results have sparked a conversation about the specific skills the district wants to promote in each of their grades and whether improving reading levels should be an aim at the Transitional Kindergarten level.

From a researcher perspective, this study provides evidence that a more highly regulated prekindergarten program can provide benefits over a robust, but less regulated market. The fact that minority students in particular benefited from TK indicates that folding prekindergarten programs into schools may diminish a well-established pattern in many prekindergarten markets — minority students tend to enroll in less effective programs.

I count myself lucky to have the opportunity to work with the San Francisco Unified School District through this partnership. The partnership has allowed me to realize my main goal as a researcher: fielding rigorous studies that inform policy and the larger field of education while providing concrete guidance to practitioners. 

More information on the research study itself is availble through this working paper. We also welcome readers to learn more about early education work in San Francisco and the partnership between Stanford and the SFUSD early education department.

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The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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