Q&A with Beth Tarasawa about New Kindergarten Transition Study

Study sheds light on potential long-term benefits of summer programs

In July, I published a report that emphasizes the importance of the transition between pre-K and kindergarten and explores state strategies to ease the transition between the two grades. One of the report’s key takeaways is that school, districts, and states must all be engaged in making the transition to kindergarten less bumpy for children and families.

Some school districts are trying to meet the transition needs of children and their families who lack access to pre-K by offering free summer programs. A new study on the Early Kindergarten Transition Program in Multnomah County, Oregon sheds light on potential long-term benefits of these programs. (Multnomah County is home to Portland.)

To learn more about the study and its implications, I interviewed Beth Tarasawa, the study’s lead researcher and the Manager for Education Research Partnerships at NWEA.

The study looks at Multnomah County’s Early Kindergarten Transition (EKT) program. What are the key components and goals of that program?

The EKT program is a free, targeted three-week summer program for incoming kindergarten students and their parents or guardians at Title I schools. The program brings early childhood and school partners together to promote successful kindergarten transition, with the goals of increasing parental involvement, reducing chronic absenteeism, and enhancing the development of early literacy skills – all indicators of long-term academic success. Portland Public Schools (PPS) first piloted the EKT program in two elementary schools in 2010. Schools and districts replicated the model, and there are now 41 schools countywide who offer EKT.

The EKT program aims to help students become more comfortable as they transition to kindergarten, but parents are a target of the program too. Could you tell us a little about how the program aims to help parents become participants in their children’s learning?

I think one of the unique features of this program is how it seeks to empower parents as partners. We know that research shows the lack of traditional parental involvement in schools, such as parent-teacher conference attendance or PTA participation, often does not indicate a lack of care. Rather, it is a product of various structural and cultural barriers (see Annette Lareau’s work for more background). Understanding the challenges (e.g., family obligations, lack of transportation, immigration status fears, the disconnect between home and school cultures) that immigrant, refugee, and other underserved families face is crucial to fostering parent engagement and supporting students’ academic success.

The EKT program aims to make parents’ first experience with their child’s school a positive one. EKT parent participants hear about how school works; connect with teachers, the principal, and other parents; and learn how to extend their child’s learning at home. Topics covered in these classes include the importance of attendance, how to read interactively with their children, and strategies for promoting math concepts and skills at home. Community organizations also participate by providing resources and training for parents. For example, Multnomah County Library provides education about literacy and ensures each family has a library card. It is also worth noting that translators, free meals, and child care are provided.

This program is about getting families connected to school, equipping them with resources that more socio-economically advantaged families often take for granted, and empowering parents or guardians to be active participants in their kids’ education.

It can be difficult to reach students that might have the most trouble transitioning to kindergarten. What is the process like in Multnomah County for identifying these kids and convincing their parents to allow them to attend EKT?

Very true – reaching students most vulnerable to difficulties transitioning to kindergarten is challenging. PPS prioritizes children who have not had a structured preschool experience, have a primary language other than English, and/or have struggled with attendance or behavior while enrolled in Head Start. While this was not detailed in the formal study, the relationship building that the district is doing to connect to those families historically most marginalized is particularly noteworthy. For example, Program Manager Nancy Hauth works with local Head Starts, but also through organizations like Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Latino Network, Self Enhancement Inc., and Native American Youth and Family Center for targeted recruitment. These established, culturally-specific organizations bring credibility to the district. I would argue, one of the most telling success stories is that many current and former EKT families invite other parents to get involved and share what they have learned through the program. This has been one of PPS’s most effective outreach methods.

What are the major findings of the new study about EKT?

Our study examined the demographics, attendance, and dynamic indicators of basic early literacy skills (DIBELS) scores of EKT students compared with those of students who attended EKT schools but did not participate in the EKT program. The total number of student participants in the program for this analysis was 459.

Prior research finds that academic indicators can predict long-term educational outcomes, such as high school graduation. For example, a student who cannot read at grade level by the third grade is four times less likely to graduate than a child who reads proficiently and at grade level by that time. Another primary goal of the EKT program is to reduce chronic absenteeism in kindergarten and beyond. Nationally, 1 in 10 kindergarten students are chronically absent. Research shows that students who are chronically absent are more likely to suffer academically, and this can be an early warning predictor of dropping out of high school.

Our findings suggest that the EKT students tend to outperform the non-EKT students, indicated by the higher proportion of EKT students who met early literacy benchmarks. Additionally, a smaller proportion of EKT students were identified as requiring intensive support based on the students’ early literacy skills. The study also found that the attendance rates of the EKT students were higher than those in the comparison group of students who did not participate in EKT in every cohort. These trends continued over time, where student attendance rates remained higher for EKT participants than for non-EKT students in EKT schools through third grade.

What are the limitations of the study that readers should keep in mind?

Experimental designs with random assignment of subjects to treatment and control groups to investigate causal effects are viewed as the gold standard in treatment outcome research, however random assignment is often impractical or too expensive in educational settings. This study is best described as a retrospective program evaluation based on cohort comparison groups. With that methodology comes some limitations. First, EKT students and their families self-selected to participate in the program. Thus, the evaluation design cannot dismiss the very real possibility of selection effects. In other words, the students who participated in EKT may have been inherently different from the students who did not participate in EKT. For example, the students who attended EKT may have had higher attendance rates in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade regardless of participation in the EKT program. Without random assignment of students either to participate or not to participate in EKT, causal statements cannot be made. Additionally, it is difficult to form true comparison student groups. As students leave and enter the schools, the same students are not necessarily being compared from year to year in comparison groups. Intact groups were created and compared to attempt to address this issue; however, the demographics still may not be precisely comparable, and the sample sizes were quite small. The limitations notwithstanding, encouraging trends emerged over time for the EKT program participants.

Are there plans to continue studying the effects of this program or similar programs?

The Multnomah County Partnership for Education Research (MCPER) has committed to replicating the study over the next several years. The partnership, developed by the University of Portland School of Education and NWEA, provides real-time research and program evaluation services to local school districts, maintains long-term research support, and builds capacity for sustained research by the preparation of doctoral candidates working within these districts.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about the study or the transition to kindergarten generally?

There are probably three additional takeaways I’d offer. First, we know many public school districts have hopes of rolling out pre-K programs, and these can be expensive. In the interim, summer bridge programs such as EKT, could have impact with relatively low cost. Second, the approach that MCPER takes – researching at the direction of the school districts – helps districts make informed decisions about resource allocation and remain accountable to their communities. PPS presented findings from the study to the local school board in efforts to secure more funding for continued programming and expansion – which was approved. Finally, I think the focus on early learning where education institutions, human services, and the private sector are collaborating to help ensure students arrive to school ready to succeed is inspiring. As Ruby Takanishi writes in her recent book, eliminating educational inequalities is the “civil and human rights challenge of our time.” It will be exciting to see how the momentum of universal preschool initiatives and the national focus on early learning could reduce persistent opportunity gaps across the nation.

Author:

Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.