Michigan transitional kindergarten widely available, supported by administrators and parents

January 26, 2023

Expanding access to high-quality early education has been a bipartisan goal of Michigan policymakers for at least a decade. 

New findings by the University of Michigan Education Policy Initiative provide the first systematic description of transitional kindergarten, one of the largest early learning options the state funds, reaching thousands of young Michigan children. Transitional kindergarten, or TK, is intended to provide an additional year of early education before children begin traditional kindergarten. 

The policy brief, Michigan Transitional Kindergarten: A First Look at Program Reach and Features, draws on state administrative records and administrator surveys from districts that provide TK. The researchers find that the majority of students in Michigan public schools are enrolled in a school district that offers a transitional kindergarten program, though districts that offer TK are more likely to be in suburbs and towns and to serve fewer students historically underserved by public education systems.

Education administrators report that improving kindergarten readiness and providing a more structured learning experience before traditional kindergarten were important factors in deciding to offer TK. The authors also find that TK programs are seen by some district leaders as a way to attract and retain students and families. 

Regarding enrollment in the program, students with summer birthdays, who would otherwise be the youngest in their kindergarten cohort, can delay traditional kindergarten entry for a year without a direct cost to their families. Children with fall birthdays who miss the state's Sept. 1 kindergarten cutoff can enroll in TK as an early learning option before starting traditional kindergarten the following year. 

"If TK programs provide a publicly funded option for delaying traditional kindergarten entry, this could increase equity by providing an option to families who otherwise could not afford to delay their child's kindergarten entry," the researchers said.

In examining the programs themselves, the study finds that since TK programs in Michigan are district-initiated and district-led, they have more variation in the implementation compared with the state- and federally funded pre-K programs offered in Michigan. 

Most programs use at least one literacy-specific curriculum, while just over half use a math-specific curriculum. Two-thirds of districts primarily use pre-K-only or pre-K/K curricula, while the rest use a kindergarten-level curriculum. 

Finally, the survey shows that both administrators and parents are overwhelmingly supportive of TK programs. Nearly all district leaders believe that TK programs improve children's academic and socioemotional preparedness for traditional kindergarten. Almost all report that TK instruction differs substantially from traditional kindergarten instruction and that children benefit from this model.

Child care cost, staff experience, location of the TK program and location of their child's siblings' school/care setting are important for parents when selecting a care setting in the year before kindergarten. More than 90% of respondents whose child attended TK were satisfied with the program, thought the program prepared their child academically for kindergarten and would recommend TK to other families. 

To fill a gap in the knowledge base regarding this widely implemented program, the U-M-based research team is conducting this study in partnership with the Michigan Department of Education. The broader aims of the project are to: 1) describe variation in the implementation of TK across the state; 2) examine the fit of the program within the state's early learning landscape, which includes state-funded pre-K (called the Great Start Readiness Project, GSRP), Head Start, family child care homes and other center-based providers; and 3) estimate the impacts of attending TK on children's later schooling outcomes. 

This report delivers data on the first of these priorities. The study team, headed by EPI faculty co-director Christina Weiland (U-M), Brian Jacob (U-M) and Anna Shapiro (University of Virginia), also includes U-M's Jordan Berne, Katia Cordoba Garcia and Samuel Owusu, as well as Tareena Musaddiq of Mathematica Policy Research.  

The central mission of the EPI is to inform evidence-based policy making in education. EPI has long been a leader in using causal inference methods to identify the impact of specific policies, programs and practices to improve student success and educational outcomes. EPI works to produce rigorous empirical evidence, inform education policy debates and discussions nationwide, and build capacity among policymakers, educational practitioners, parents and students for evidence-based education reform.

You can see the full paper here.