This article also appears in San Diego Magazine.

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 and her husband he was struggling with reading. He was going to be left behind.

It was kindergarten.

Homework (yes, there’s homework) was a miserable experience every day. They switched schools but he was still behind.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

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 interventions the schools and the Coxes made didn’t help. Her son hated school.

“He can read. But it’s coming slow. 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 said on our podcast, Good Schools for All.

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 — and we surely will for some time. For now, they are the standards many of us 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 confront 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,” said Ida Rose Florez, executive director of the Elementary Institute of Science, and an expert on early childhood education and development.

For people with low incomes or struggling in poverty, it can obviously 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 group 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 pointed out, also on Good Schools for All, 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 the actual shape of their brains. It helps them learn more.

“Learning begets learning,” Florez said.

She used 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 to increase it by 6,000 more in coming years.

But Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego assemblywoman right in the middle of that issue, said much of the money will go to simply maintaining the quilt of childcare services we have now. 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 state budget merely stopped the bleeding in this area, Gonzalez said.

“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 said. “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 preschool slots in San Diego Unified School District — these are fully subsidized — 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, which makes it difficult for parents to rely on them for childcare. And the income levels required to qualify are extremely low. Participants must prove they were poor constantly. Parents had an incentive to reject raises at work so they wouldn’t lose the slot.

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

One major program the state put up rather quietly was the so-called transitional kindergarten program.

Kindergarten starts when a child turns 5. It’s been that way for a long time. If your child is 5 when the school year starts, you can enroll him or her in kindergarten.

Now, however, California has offered a select group of kids an entire extra year of schooling to help them with this very issue of ramping up into kindergarten. It’s called transitional kindergarten, or TK.

How do you get into this elite club? Simple, when you go about conceiving your children, try to do it between late December and early March. Specifically, you’ll want your child to be born between Sept. 2 and Dec. 2. It’s like playing the shuffle board of life – you must push it just right.

If you win, and your kids are not quite 5 years old when the school year starts, they can enter transitional kindergarten — the government has offered these lucky children a free extra year of early-childhood learning.

It’s a windfall for parents who qualify., a project of the Lucile Parker Foundation, used a market survey from 2014 to estimate the average cost of preschool in San Diego at just below $10,000. There are not a lot of people who can pass up a chance to save $10,000.

The program has also become a kind of featherbed for parents who might have, in the past, considered redshirting their children. Redshirting is when they hold them back for a year — a common fad, especially for wayward boys. But the evidence is unclear on whether it’s a good thing.

Redshirting used to be the domain of the privileged: You have to, after all, be able to afford an extra year of daycare or preschool to keep your kids out of elementary school.

A mixed transitional kindergarten/kindergarten class, however, is a place where kids can go if they might have otherwise been redshirted. They do well, and they can move on to first grade. They do OK and they can go to kindergarten.

I know this because this is what my son did. Born a couple weeks too early for transitional kindergarten, that’s where he ended up.

It’s a backdoor way to extend universal preschool, and it has also helped ratchet up expectations.

In fact, Cox, the East County mother, told me teachers initially blamed the struggles her son was facing on his own lack of participation in transitional kindergarten.

There was only one problem: He was not eligible for transitional kindergarten.

This year, Gov. 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 who happen to be born in the TK window.

That’s nice, for them. Unfortunately, even if everyone had all the resources they wanted, there remains a major disconnect between school and preschool and daycare.

Right now, preschools generally have an 8-to-1 ratio, meaning eight kids for every teacher. But kindergarten, in San Diego, is right now at 24-to-1. It’s a jarring transition.

“There’s nothing magical or scientific that says that 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,” said Laura Kohn, executive director of the Education Synergy Alliance in San Diego.

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

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

Like with anything in education, the solutions are not easy. Yes, we could extend TK to all students. Yes, we could expand slots for universal preschool and vouchers for good preschools. Yes, we could address the standards and make sure they’re not so academic and try to preserve some of the playing and project-based culture from preschools that kids may need.

But new parents need to know right away that they must put in motion the education of their kids from the beginning. They hear all the time that the time will fly by. It does, and before you know it, the children are expected to read with purpose and understanding.

If they don’t, their parents will end up in that weird world Cox found herself — a place where you’ve been informed something is wrong with your child but it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do about it.

Cox’s daughter is now about to enter kindergarten. Having experienced what they did with their son, she and her husband searched for more academic preschools that might better prepare their daughter. Their son had a great first-grade teacher but is still behind.

They didn’t find a more academic preschool for their daughter. She wrote in an email to me that she did something she once thought unthinkable.

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

    This article relates to: Education, Must Reads

    Written by Scott Lewis

    Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently breaks news and goes back and forth with local political figures. Contact Scott at or 619.325.0527, and follow him on Twitter at @vosdscott.

    Virginia Tibbetts
    Virginia Tibbetts

    This article is a bunch of hooey. The author dismisses the Common Core State Standards as if they don't matter. Can we not take the example of the highest scoring country in the world, Finland? They do not start their kids until age 7, and they focus mostly on play. They have 4 outdoor play periods a day, with learning held to a maximum of 45 minutes.  They have no standardized tests, like the United States, until high school. Their kids routinely kick everyone's butts in reading and math.  Why? Because they are allowed to be kids, for Heaven's sake.  I have taught for over 28 years, and retired with much heartache. I knew I still had some fight left in me to make sure my kids, sixth graders, loved to read, learn and play. But I could no longer stay and watch the powers that be, as seen in your article, the CC$$ and its monied interests, cause so much damage to our youth. I was out gunned. Mrs. Cox, I am sorry that you have experience this. Keep you chin up and never, never believe that your kids are behind.  Fight the CC$$ with every fiber in your body because you love your kids. I will be doing the same when my granddaughter is school age.    

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    I have full faith in my 5 year old to excel in kindergarten. He will be attending Sherman's dual immersion program starting August 29. I not only have faith in him to excel in the English portion but in the Spanish portion as well. If you don't believe in your child's ability to do the work then that fault solely lies with the parents. Common Core ain't the problem.

    Karen Dalton
    Karen Dalton

    Kelly said it best.  This article isn't based on neuroscience and can be damaging to parents and children.  Please do your research before scaring parents into forcing children to do things before they are ready, and setting them up for a lifetime of hating school.

    Kelly Meier
    Kelly Meier

    I'm sorry but this is completely inaccurate. Neuroscience proves that early academics does NOTHING to close the achievement gap, in fact its quite the opposite. Preschoolers learn best through PLAY. Lack of play in poverty will set them behind, not lack of early academics. Early academics will only stress a child whose brain is not developmentally ready for reading or academics. Play is problem solving, play is social development, play is emotional development, play is LEARNING. Children learn by hearing someone ask for the BLUE ball or for FOUR blocks. Children are naturally curious and by forcing academics earlier we are ensuring an early hatred of school and learning, we are shutting down natural curiosity instead of encouraging it. Please research these claims before you write about them. Common Core did not take brain development into account when they developed it, they simply backed down the standards form high school through kindergarten without taking into account that often times the brain is NOT READY to grasp concepts like reading until age 7 in some children and that is NORMAL for that child. I feel badly for this son and for this child. There is nothing wrong with him, he is not behind he is normal for HIM and on the spectrum of learning to read. It's society that has the problem forcing these expectations so soon and making the problem worse. The worst thing for kids in poverty is that they don't get enough time to play. Playtime and decent loving care is lacking in impoverished areas for many reasons and that contributes to the gap NOT early academics. Next time site the NAEYC for facts like this and stop making parents feel inadequate instead of included.

    Heather Poland
    Heather Poland subscriber

    Parents absolutely do NOT need to just accept the way it is. There is much research out there that shows that for early childhood, play IS learning and it is how kids best learn. Just because Common Core was passed (not even written by teachers, btw), doesn't mean it is good or that parents shouldn't complain. Parents SHOULD be complaining! There has been an overemphasis on testing, as well as developmentally inappropriate standards for kids. Parents need to speak up. Teachers have been trying, but districts listen to parents more. Kids need play. Also, kids learn at their own pace. Some kids are ready to read at 4 or 5, and plenty are not. We shouldn't be pushing all kids into the same mold. 

    Shannon Biggs
    Shannon Biggs subscribermember

    It is possible, as others have said, that some of the children described in the story are struggling with learning disabilities. It is also possible that, despite the parents and pre-schools' best intentions, some of the struggling children may simply not have had as much practice as they needed, or as the parents think they did.

    Researchers have suggested that it takes 10,000 hours to master a new skill. That is to master the skill - not to attain the level at which children will be performing in Kindergarten. Children attending school full time spend about 1000 hours a year in the classroom. That means that a great deal of the practice they need to build a skill takes place outside of school, often without us knowing it.

    Young children who have spent however brief a period of time every single night snuggled in a lap being read to are logging minutes that turn into hours practicing reading, even if they never utter a word. Young children who help their parents make shopping lists and write notes to Grandma are practicing writing, even if they never pick up a pen. Young children whose parents count their toys out loud while putting them away and then count by 2's and 5's and 10's, are learning mathematics even if they never add, subtract, multiply and divide. Young children who help their parents cook are learning science, even if they don't know why the bread rises. 

    Children whose lives are spent sharing books and stories and mathematics and science with their caregivers as early as possible, will be ahead because those tiny minutes of practice have added up to hours. Children who are older and have had more time with books and stories and mathematics and science are ahead because they have had opportunities to practice. 

    Redshirting is NOT for the rich. And, red shirting shouldn't be just for the early grades. All "the rich" are doing is repeating a grade. Maybe they try to make whatever silly stigma that might be attached to repeating a grade go away by switching schools. But, there should be NO stigma attached to repeating a grade. Split grade classes help with kids who need to redshirt. Another effective way is to do it right before the shift to middle school. 

    And, if your child needs more practice, it's not a big deal. Have him or her proudly say, "My parents want me to really learn this now so I will be ahead later." There is no school in the country that would fight a parent who needs for the child to have extra practice.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    You are not going to discuss Common Crap? Was CC ever tested in the classroom before it was shoved down the throats of parents and students? The answer is NO! Were there any parents or teachers on the board that thought up CC? The answer, NO! These current group of students, including yours Scot are guinea pigs to this curriculum. Any school districts, principals, teachers or school board members have a say about this new curriculum. NO! 

    Who owns the testing rights to CC?  Bill Gates and his buddies, who are due to make billions.

    Wait till you get a load of the elementary math curriculum. You will not be able to help your child as just adding 6+7 now takes 13 steps to get the correct answer. All you do by helping your child is confuse them. Take it from a concerned Grandparent. 

    Have the teachers been thoroughly trained in this new CC curriculum? NO!    

    In NY state on Long Island most of the parents have opted their children out of the testing part of CC. NY state has some of the lowest test scores in the country.

    How did CC become the new state curriculum? After the financial melt down in 2008 and all the states had to severely cut their education budget Obama came up with this deal for the states. If you approve CC Governor Brown the federal government will give you billions of dollars for your education budget. You know kind of like extortion.

    meridithcoady subscriber

    This makes me so sad.  I feel so badly for these kids - being pushed this hard against unrealistic expectations already at age 4 and 5. Setting kids up to feel unsuccessful - not because they aren't learners but because the adults are being ridiculous about what they expect. 

    KIm Carpender
    KIm Carpender subscriber

    I taught reading (and other things) at the K-2nd grade levels for over 20 years.  I'd like to make the following observations:

    1. Schools need to use a balanced approach to reading.  Some words are sight read while others can use phonics.  Teaching both ways is important so we reach different children's strengths.

    2. Reading can't be rushed.  The best system I have ever worked in had pre-K, kindergarten, and pre-first.  Children could have and extra year or in some few cases 2 years to master these skills without being "left back".  

    3. Class size matters.  Children should have both a teacher and a qualified aide in the class room until at least 3rd grade.  

    4.  Homework in kindergarten should be very minimal.  Hours of homework at that age level is not appropriate.  Kids need time to play and be kids.

    5.  Children need adults who have time to listen to them read individually.  In neighborhoods where parents are working multiple jobs to support their children they may need extra aides to listen to children read.  A trained volunteer would work too. This would be a great service project for a community group.

    6.  Movement matters.  I find it hard to sit for hours.  Children find it nearly impossible.  Not just recess but movement around the class room is important. I used to regularly allow kids to work sitting or laying on a rug on the floor.

    David Meyer
    David Meyer subscriber

    This shouldn't be so complicated.  The goal of kindergarten should be to introduce kids to school in a way that makes school appealing and learning fun.  Obviously it should be continue to be play-based, as preschool/TK is/should be.  If some children are ready to learn to read, they should have the opportunity to do so, but for the others, simply having someone read to them every day is the best motivator for learning to read later.

    (In whichever grade the school system begins teaching reading universally, it should be mandatory that the teachers are trained to recognize learning disabilities, especially dyslexia.  Whether the school system can then provide services is, unfortunately, a funding issue.)

    All this being said, the general academic expectations for kindergarten are not very high.  Wednesday of the first week of kindergarten my daughter's teacher told them they would do math the next day.  My daughter was looking forward to it, but then the teacher ended up corralling kids during the time period planned for math, and postponed it to Friday.  Friday after school I asked my daughter about the math lesson.  She said, "We didn't even do 1 + 1 = 2!".  I asked her what they did do.  "We learned to count to 5."  Apparently this was difficult for many of the kids, because on Monday they learned to count to 3, and then on Tuesday they learned to count to 2.  (Our joke was that by the end of the week they'd learn about negative numbers ... but of course that's not true:  negative numbers aren't introduced under the Common Core until 6th grade.)  I'm quite sure that with universal TK/preschool all kids could learn to count to 10, *by playing games*, before they enter kindergarten. 

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    " Kids must be able to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.”. That is educational jargon to mean your kid needs to be able to read a really easy book with three or four letter words and two to three sentences per page. You can easily spot these books because the print is usually large. Also your kid needs to know what they read. Learning how to read is a process and must be monitored precisely.  Children must master 48 or sounds in English or about 30 sounds in Spanish and pair them to actual letters. Once that happens the mixing, the blending of those sounds and letters lead to reading a word, something that means something to your kid, "ball", for example. Words with multiple meanings should not be taught at this time. Words with multiple meanings can be introduced and explained when the kid(s) are listening to a story. 

       If any of the essential steps toward reading and reading comprehension are missed or not thoroughly learned, there will be a delay in achieving greater challenges in reading. 

         Why is so essential for student achievement? Well, nearly everything presented in school K-12 requires a strong reading and writing ability, with the obvious exceptions of recess and P.E.

    Why is writing important? When you type some thoughts(and there a running controversy about writing on a computer or tablet) or write some thoughts on paper you are providing important ways for the brain to organize your thoughts. 

          So, what's the problem?  If you are a kinder through 2nd grade teacher your primary task is to teach students how to read. After that, presumably, kids are reading to learn and no longer need the intensity of launching their reading skills. The problem is, at least, 20% of any given K-3 classroom is comprised of children who are still struggling to read. The obstacles to this group range from a lack of exposure to sounds and letters at home to physical challenges like dyslexia or autism to an unstable home life. The classroom teacher is prevented, in some cases, by law not to suggest to a parent anything more than "your child is not reading". This can be very frustrating to a parent because he/she feels the school is not being transparent enough. The problem is liability for the school. Parents are usually very sensitive about issues regarding their children.  

             Another issue is the ratio of teachers to students.  It is well documented that a lower class size, especially K-3 improves the number of opportunities a student receives from a teacher in a small group setting( of 5 or fewer).  In classrooms where the majority of students come from homes under excessive stress the classroom size should be smaller. Yes, of course, there is a cost factor. And, that is a problem. 

              Another issue is choice. For as long as I can remember, even as a child, parents have always had a choice to place their kid in a public school or a private school. Schools and children are not inherently "bad". What is missing is the involvement of the parents, the surrogates, in the daily academic progress of their kids.  Even parents that are "affluent" don't necessarily provide important time for their kids. And, parents who are "less affluent" cannot give total tacit responsibility to the schools to provide all the necessary elements of learning. 

             Shocked? Hmmm. I wonder about how some of these parents become suddenly shocked about kindergarten.It could be benign neglect.  Whether the program has been "Leave no Child Behind" or, now, the "Common Core" the essence of launching a child into reading has been the same for more than a hundred years. Kids need to learn how to read and write in order to succeed in school and they must do so before reaching the 4th grade.  Cross culturally most of the people in prison have not been launched into reading and writing. Their acknowledgement of this is well documented.  

             It is my assessment that if we take care of those 20% in classroom  who are consistently struggling all over our country we could easily have more money, as a nation, to improve ....almost everything.



    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    Scott nods to the question of whether kindergarten reading is of any value apart from school expectations. It's worth some more time. 

    There's a sort of conveyor belt common sense that says early reading will prepare kids for more learning and higher achievement later. Ida Florez says so explicitly. It's not born out by the research, though. Kids starting to read at age 5 do no better by age 10 than do kids starting at age 7. Our brains are just like that. There's evidence too that the age 7 readers do better on reading comprehension. This may be because time devoted to reading at age 5 and 6 is time that wasn't devoted to other foundational learning development.

    Likewise homework, which has been clearly shown to be worthless in elementary school, of mixed value in middle school, and finally of value in high school. And yet. 

    That's not to say we should be casual about education. But if schools are thinking too simplistically about readiness (sooner is always better, right?) then they are making a damaging mistake, pushing harder, sooner, not seeing results in grade 12, and so pushing harder still.

    Finland's school system gets a lot of deserved attention for its high level of achievement and the role of high teacher qualification and status there. I'd speculate that we'll find an equal contribution comes from a early learning approach which builds a strong oral and social foundation and finding no reason to rush reading or academics, doesn't.

    Our schools, trying to address later disparities and responding to pressures to perform, are making a myopic mistake: if we just get them reading and doing homework early enough! There are much better ways and educators that understand this need our help getting off this too narrowly construed and reckless cycle.

    Molly Cook
    Molly Cook

    It's a surprise to know that Common Core requires children to read in kindergarten.  An ophthalmologist I knew years ago believed that children's eyes were not ready to fine-tune for activities such as reading until the age of 7.  I don't know where the ophthalmological community comes down on Common Core, but I do know that kids respond to their environment and that both of my kids, now with kids of their own, were early readers because they grew up in a home where reading was a part of life and reading to and with the kids was an everyday activity.

    Over the years, the whole business of teaching reading has gone through a lot of gyrations, some worse than others.  I hope the schools are back to phonetics these days, but whatever the method, it's incumbent on people, especially the ones who are, like the Coxes, smart and educated to pitch in and help their kids with reading.  Any parents who consider hiring a tutor for kids that young might instead consider turning off the smartphone and the computer and the television and just - well, reading to them.  Again and again.  It does work.

    toctome subscriber

    In kindergarten, my son would come home with his shirt drenched from chewing on it, which was new behavior for him. His homework took hours to complete. He expressed to both his teacher and myself, that school was hard and the classroom was to loud. I hired a tutor for my child, requested and attended 2 Study Team meetings that year and advocated strongly for reading support for my child. The only option school gave me was to hold him back and to repeat kindergarten, which I did not agree with that direction as he attended an academic preschool. 

    After years of struggling with school, I had my son privately evaluated with a neuro-psychological assessment in 3rd grade. Turns out he was extremely dyslexic. Even with that diagnoses, the school district waited until he was in 6th grade before they offered reading support. The program they used did not help improve my child's reading. 

    Currently, my son is entering the 8th grade with his reading, writing, and math skills at a 3rd-4th grade level. His self esteem and confidence is in the gutter. After strongly advocating for help since kindergarten and receiving no support from school, beyond an ineffective IEP, I will now be enrolling my son in a non-public school so he can be surrounded by the support he needs.

    For any parent whose child is struggling in kindergarten, please have your child assessed privately. If found to be dyslexic, the Orton-Gillingham or Barton Reading System are the only effective remediation for this learning difference. Unfortunately the school districts do not offer that support, so you will have to privately pay. Also, if financially possible, enroll your child in a non-public school because a regular classroom teacher has simply too many students to manage.

    It breaks my heart to read stories of other children struggling in kindergarten, due to reading, as I know from experience how challenging that can be for the student and their family.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Scott, chill out a little. We all want to do the best for our kids, and certain kids may need extra attention, but parents can go too far. I personally had reading problems early on, they were conquered with time and  I eventually went on to grad and post grad education, followed by a successful career. I also have had friends who were dyslexic who ended up being successful. On the other hand, i have had friends who turned into helicopter parents, diligently over-guiding every step of their chilren's schooling. Their children turned out to be insecure and afraid of life. Don't obsess!