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Transitional Kinder

Anna Markowitz Talks About California’s Effort to Expand Transitional Kindergarten

As evidence about the importance of children’s early experiences for their long-term school success and well-being has grown, California has responded through increased investments in children’s early learning. In 2010, California passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, creating a program of Transitional Kindergarten which offered four-year-old children born in a four-month window each year access to an extra year of high-quality learning experiences. 

With a push from Governor Newsom in 2021, the state passed legislation expanding this program and requiring all school districts to offer access to transitional kindergarten for all four-year-old children by the 2025–26 school year. Alongside California’s other school-based early childhood offerings, this push for Universal Transitional Kindergarten will create Universal Pre-Kindergarten in public schools for all children in the state. This is a bold effort with great potential, but also one that poses complex challenges to California’s education workforce and facilities, and will require the best efforts of California’s educators and policymakers to plan and support its success.  

Anna Markowitz

Anna Markowitz

Anna Markowitz is an assistant professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies with significant research interest and expertise in the field of early childhood education. As a co-director of multiple state-level early childhood research partnerships, her work has plumbed the workplace conditions and challenges faced by early educators and the prevalence of teacher turnover in early childhood education. She was recently named a UCLA Society of Hellman Fellow, and is leading a study on economic, health, and psychological inequities faced by childcare center teachers and workers. As California’s educators and policymakers consider the next steps in the expansion of TK we talk here with Professor Markowitz about the status of the Universal Transitional Kindergarten effort and the challenges ahead. 

UCLA: Can you give us a sense of what’s happening with the Transitional Kindergarten program in California? What’s the purpose of trying to do this?

Anna Markowitz: Historically, in the United States, it’s been very hard for families with children under five to be able to access care and education, either in terms of being able to find or afford the kind of high-quality care children need to thrive. And so over time, states have been trying to take matters into their own hands and create high-quality educational settings for young children. This has been particularly true as developmental science and neuroscience have convincingly shown these early years are very important for long-term development. And so what California is trying to do with universal pre-kindergarten is to provide a new option for families of four-year-old children, and provide that missing free, high-quality care. Governor Newsom put forward a bill to make Transitional Kindergarten accessible for all four-year-old children, while also ensuring families retain access to other early childhood programs run by the state such as the California State Preschool Program, Head Start, and Early Education Centers. The goal was to try to provide easier access to care for families and to give schools the time to adjust to providing care for young students, which is a great goal, but also a big ask. 

Is part of the purpose of this effort to try to reach low-income families, or families that may speak different languages, to try to give those kids a little bump as they head into school and maybe boost student learning and achievement?

I think this might be a long-term goal of the state, but initially, it will be difficult to achieve. In California, we have an incredibly high proportion of children who speak a variety of heritage languages, and like most places in the United States, a truly high proportion of our young children are from families who have low incomes. This effort certainly will support those families in a new way by providing a year of free care. And that’s great. But this is not a targeted program specifically designed to support these families. This policy creates a three-hour day with some wrap-around care options, which may not be easily accessible or understandable for working families. Our programs will not be able to support language opportunities in children’s heritage languages which is essential for the development of multi-lingual learners. And we are not putting efforts in place to ensure that there is developmental quality across universal pre-k programs. While historically TK has been shown to be effective at supporting children’s early learning, that has been a very different group of children than we’ve opened TK to now. I think UPK will ultimately provide a benefit for children who attend, but it has not been designed with working families or dual language families in mind, and there are likely to be some growing pains.  

What do you think about how the TK effort is going at the school site level? 

There is a lot of variability, in part because there are school districts that have had larger or smaller TK programs in the past. I think the big thing that’s true is that a lot of principals feel like they’ve been asked to take something on that they might not necessarily have the facilities for. The state is trying to leave the door open for guidance or for choice, which while valuable, has left some folks feeling a little overwhelmed.  We are also starting to hear stories about teachers noting the difference in working with a young four-year-old as compared to working with an older four-year-old. And that is only going to become more significant as even younger four-year-old children enter the classroom. Teachers need support in helping children develop the regulatory skills that come on line in the four-year-old year that underpin their later success. On the parent side, parents are also not sure whether or not this is the best setting for their kids, partly because a lot of them are thinking they are going to have to pay for some kind of aftercare anyway.  There’s not a lot of clarity on what happens at the end of a three-hour day at the moment. So many folks are working very hard, but this is a challenging ask for K-12 schools. 

What’s your sense of the quality of TK programs now? What should the state be thinking about in terms of improving quality?

Working with four-year-old children is very different than what a lot of TK classrooms have looked like, which in many school districts in California was just basically running a kindergarten curriculum twice. That’s not going to work with the arrival of young fours. But the schools are in a hard position because it’s not easy to find teachers who are trained to think about what teaching four-year-old children looks like. It should look different. These classrooms should be loud, they should be active, kids need to be saying words, practicing words, and practicing social interactions over and over again. It’s a very different setup than the tools we use to improve what’s happening in the classroom in K-12 settings, so principals are working hard to learn to support teachers as well.  

I think it’s too early to say what they should be doing in terms of improving quality because I don’t think we know enough about what quality looks like right now. We’ve learned to say a lot of words like play-based and developmentally appropriate, but when push comes to shove, those things are complicated to provide, they look very different than what a traditional elementary school classroom might look like as we imagine it. It’s not clear yet what we are doing that works, and how teachers and principals can create successful spaces. It’s also not clear what schools are planning to do to ensure that children have ample opportunity to speak and learn in heritage languages. 

What advice would you give to education policymakers who are funding and trying to shape the new TK effort?  Are there some things that you think they should be thinking about or doing now?

It’s hard because there’s never a perfect choice. I admire the decision to just say, ‘We’re going to do this for everybody and then improve over time.’ That’s one path to take. If I were giving advice right now, I would be talking to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing about different ways to get experienced early educators in the classroom. I’d be pushing them really hard to think about pay parity across settings. There are structural disparities across the different early learning settings in which Universal Pre-Kindergarten will be provided, and the creation of UTK is not going to change that. I would say let’s put a big focus on who the educators are in the room and how we can support them. That’s going to come with a need for attention to salary and training. We also need to pay a lot of attention to heritage languages and the training of principals.  Principals need to understand these classrooms should be loud and busy, and that you can’t evaluate a teacher or child based on the traditional metrics that we’re comfortable with using with older kids. 

We need to be thinking about how we can use policy to make the various early learning settings families choose as equitable as possible in terms of developmental quality, so we can comfortably say that when we give public dollars for kids to get early care and education that they’re getting a high-quality experience wherever they go. TK is just a new part of that puzzle.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the workforce issues and needs here in California for the expansion of TK? 

Right now, I think the state is having a lot of conversations about how to get folks with the credentials they need to work in these different settings. There’s a concern about shortages across different types of classrooms based on who has credentials and who doesn’t. The goal is to have a qualified, experienced early educator in every classroom, but the difference in credentials required across spaces will create challenges. For example, experienced teachers who have worked with four-year-old children for many years in the California State Preschool Program (CSPP) may want to work in TK, but if they do not have a BA and a teaching credential, that’s not possible. We currently do not have a mechanism to smooth that transition. We are also offering highly divergent salaries across these settings, which is likely to create a disparity in teacher experience and training across these spaces, which may be meaningful for children’s experiences. 

Beyond that, we need a new pipeline of educators who are going to think about teaching four-year-old children. We have credentialing systems that really focus on upper elementary students. These schools do a lot of work to prepare teachers for K-3, and they sort of adjusted for TK in 2011. But, this is an even bigger adjustment. Schools of education need to be thinking pretty hard about what it would look like to design something where teachers are learning how to work with young four-year-olds in this classroom. Many folks have been pushing for the Pre-K to 3 credential as a solution for this.  Schools of education are going to have to tackle that difficult work. 

When you think of your research, what are your next steps to try to understand some of this better? 

A colleague and I are working right now toward getting funding for a project that is going to look at TK classrooms, CSPP classrooms, and local childcare sites to look at and think about the experiences of kids across these different sites.  We want to see what kinds of teachers, what kinds of school days, what kind of developmental experiences and curriculum children have access to across different UPK options. And we want to focus on what it looks like to be a parent making a choice about these different places for their children. We’re excited to be in childcare centers to ask parents who didn’t choose TK, why they didn’t, and parents who did choose TK, why they did. For some families, trust in K-12 settings may play a role, and it is important to hear those voices. We also want to think about the structure of the three-hour day and what that is really doing for children and families. Maybe we can help to come up with better solutions once we get a little more information. 

Is there anything else you want people to know about TK and your thoughts on it right now?

I think it’s important to note that California is operating in a very complicated policy space and dealing with long-standing issues in early care and education. I think UPK is a good-faith effort to try to manage a lot of difficult moving parts, but without paying attention to the different experiences that children are going to have across different early childhood settings, we run the risk of recreating some of the problems from the past. Without paying attention to the full ecosystem of early childhood, not just kind of taking these slivers, we are in a situation where we could have some negative unintended consequences. Early childhood education has been a big complex challenge for a long time—if we continue to ignore childcare centers and the broader early childhood ecosystem, if we ignore the experiences of children younger than four, and if we continue to undervalue the expertise of early educators as we make policy decisions, we could be setting ourselves up for trouble down the line. If UPK is simply the beginning of a larger investment in the first five years of children’s lives, California could be setting itself up as an innovator in the early childhood space. Time will tell.