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Who Needs a Tutor in First Grade?

What happens when Common Core gets in the way of learning


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Sally Cox, an East County mother of two, thought she was doing everything right.

She works in education. She has resources. She’s smart. Her son went to a private preschool and did fine there. But when he entered kindergarten, everything was wrong. Within just a couple of months, the teacher informed her that he was struggling with reading. He was severely behind.

It was kindergarten.

Homework—yes, there’s homework—was a miserable experience every day. Cox’s son switched schools, but he was still behind.

Common Core standards for children mean that, in kindergarten, kids must be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.” Obviously, other kids could meet the standards, but the measures taken by Cox, her husband, and the schools didn’t help. Her son hated school.

“He can read, but it’s coming slow,” she said, on Voice of San Diego’s Good Schools for All podcast. “He’s considered well below grade level in first grade. I’m just surprised you could be well below grade level in first grade and still be able to read.”

She’s not alone, of course. Many of us began learning to read in first grade.

We can debate Common Core and other established standards all we want, but for now, they are the benchmarks we confront when our children enter kindergarten.
And some of our children are not ready for them.

It’s not just a wealthy versus poor gap, either. Even the most resourceful parents face a bewildering array of options—and lack of options—for early childcare and preschool.

“For the most part, when a family moves into a community and they have a seventh-grade kid, they know where to go, they know who to ask. It’s not the same if you have a seven-month-old child. It doesn’t matter your socioeconomic background,” says Ida Rose Florez, executive director of the Elementary Institute of Science and an expert on early childhood education and development.

In 2014, more than 700 fully subsidized preschool slots in San Diego Unified School District went unfilled.

For people earning low incomes or struggling in poverty, it can be much worse. Only 48 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in San Diego County attend preschool, according to census data crunched by the nonprofit Children Now. It’s not that everyone needs to go to a preschool. But they need to be on that continuum from infancy, especially if they’re going to attend traditional public schools with the standards as firmly in place as they are.

As Florez points out, children serve up cues from the moment they come into the world—invitations to teach them. When the invitation is taken up, it lays a foundation in their brain. It helps them learn more. “Learning begets learning,” she says.

She uses a cycling metaphor: Children who gradually ramp up from infancy ride the bike of life with a wind at their back. But the headwind kids face without early education can be fierce.

California is trying to address the issue. This year, the state is investing $500 million more into early childhood education programs. It will increase the number of free preschool slots across the state by 3,000, with promises of 6,000 more in coming years.

Lorena Gonzalez, one of San Diego’s state representatives, is right in the middle of that issue. She says that the state budget merely stopped the bleeding, as much of the money will go only toward maintaining the childcare services we have now. In other words, the state is increasing the reimbursement for these caregivers—everything from subsidies for daycare centers to those for grandparents who oversee their children’s children.

“The disparity between those who learn their numbers, learn their letters, and study in private preschools and those who start off in kindergarten is getting larger,” she says. “This is a huge issue, and if we want to lift up our entire state, it all depends on these years.”

In 2014, though, more than 700 fully subsidized preschool slots in San Diego Unified School District went unfilled. It’s not because there are no people living in poverty. There are many. It’s mostly because some of the preschool programs were only half-day, making it difficult for parents to rely on them for childcare. And the maximum income levels required to qualify are extremely low. Participants had to constantly prove they were poor. Parents had incentive to reject raises at work so they wouldn’t lose their child’s slot.

It was not exactly a good incentive. None of those requirements have changed.

One major program the state instituted rather quietly was so-called transitional kindergarten, or TK. For years, the standard has been that children are eligible to enroll in kindergarten if they turn 5 years old before the school year begins.

Now, however, California offers a whole extra year of schooling to children whose fifth birthday falls between September 2 and December 2.

It’s a windfall for parents of children who qualify. The Lucile Packard Foundation used a market survey from 2014 to estimate the average cost of preschool in San Diego at just below $10,000. There aren’t many people who can pass up a chance to save $10,000.

Although the California Department of Education recommends that TK and kindergarten classes be separate, the final decision is left to schools, some of which mix kids from both years in the same classroom. Those mixed classes can end up being a new option for parents who might have considered keeping their kids out of kindergarten for a year, or “redshirting” them. Redshirting used to be the domain of the privileged, who could afford an extra year of daycare or preschool to keep their kids out of elementary school. Now, perhaps those children can go to TK.

Kids in mixed or individual TK classes can either move up to kindergarten the following year or, if they do exceptionally well, straight to first grade.

It’s a backdoor way to arrive at universal public preschool, and it has also raised expectations.

Sally Cox says teachers initially assumed the struggles her son was facing must have been caused by his own lack of participation in TK. There was only one problem: He had not been eligible for TK.

This year, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to eliminate TK and instead send the money and some of that extra preschool/childcare budget to school districts, with a mandate that they use it to address the needs of poor communities.

That did not happen. And it remains an entitlement for those whose children happen to be born in the TK window. Unfortunately, even after setting aside the financial considerations, there remains a major disconnect: San Diego preschools have an average 8-to-1 child-to-teacher ratio, but in our kindergartens, it’s 24-to-1. It’s a jarring transition.

“There’s nothing magical or scientific that says 4-year-olds need one teacher for every eight kids, but all of a sudden at age 5, they thrive with 23 or 24 kids per teacher. We treat it as though there’s a huge change in the child, but really it’s a huge change in the system,” says Laura Kohn, executive director of San Diego’s Education Synergy Alliance.

And so, many kids run into the same problems Cox’s son did. They have a play-based preschool. They enjoy it. Then the next year they find themselves in a much louder, more regimented, busier classroom with worksheets, homework, and federally mandated expectations.

Innovative charter schools are trying different formulas. They’re embracing project-based learning, technology, and more free time. They’re disavowing homework. But those efforts have yet to scale out to the broader districts.

Finding and implementing solutions to this disconnect isn’t easy. No major change to our educational system could be. But it is more important than ever for new parents to set education in motion early, and to be aware of whether the curriculum of their chosen preschool will prepare their children for state kindergarten standards.

Cox’s son had a great first-grade teacher, but is still behind. Now her daughter is about to enter kindergarten. She and her husband searched for more academic preschools that might better prepare their daughter, but didn’t find any that were suitable.

Exasperated by the entire situation, Cox says she’s done something she had once found unthinkable:

“I have considered hiring a tutor to help my daughter prepare for kindergarten!”


Scott Lewis is the CEO and editor in chief of Voice of San Diego, a San Diego Magazine partner and nonprofit news organization.

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