Building Early Education Leaders

A Closer Look at How States and Districts are Equipping Principals to Support Young Learners
Blog Post
April 30, 2019

This is the first blog in a series on professional learning for elementary school principals. A new blog will be released every Tuesday between April 30th and May 28th.

It’s hard to deny the power of a good leader. Across fields, leaders establish conditions for success. Among other things, leaders are usually responsible for determining an organization’s priorities, helping employees meet established goals, setting the culture, and empowering staff. Early childhood education is no different.

Principals leading elementary schools play a vital role in determining the quality of care and education that young children receive. In fact, research shows that after teachers, principals are the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement. Principals often function as both administrative and instructional leaders, and can be responsible for everything from managing finances to hiring staff, choosing a curriculum, and evaluating teachers.

Thus, it is crucial that these leaders understand how young children learn best. They must be able to identify appropriate instruction across ages and grade levels. For instance, when entering a kindergarten classroom, principals should know that children sitting quietly at desks completing worksheets is not a good sign. Alternatively, when children are playing, leaders should be able to make the distinction between a classroom where learning is taking place versus one that is in chaos. In a 2017 50-state scan on policies for early education leaders, New America found that in most states, it is possible for principals to enter their roles without the knowledge and skills they need to best serve young students.

What’s missing in leader preparation?

Early childhood education is not typically covered in principal preparation programs. And research shows that elementary school principals often don’t understand what early learning should look like based on the science of child development. With public pre-K expansion, principals are increasingly overseeing younger students, but a 2015 survey found that only about 20 percent of early-career principals overseeing pre-K classrooms felt well-versed in early childhood education. And this doesn’t just apply to pre-K: instruction in kindergarten and the early grades often doesn’t align with what is best for young children.

With the right skill set and supports, principals can be true drivers of change for teachers and the children they work with. Research has found that leadership is key in efforts to strengthen and align the pre-K through third grade continuum, a primary strategy for ensuring children build on their learning from one year to the next.

Leaders who feel better equipped to do their jobs are also more likely to stay in their roles. Turnover is disruptive to both staff and students and makes it difficult to achieve longer-term reform efforts. A recent report by the Learning Policy Institute finds that inadequate preparation and professional learning are among the top reasons that principals leave their jobs.

Strong preparation for elementary school principals is sorely needed. And for those already on the job, professional learning focused on early education can be a key (and sometimes overlooked) lever to improving program quality, if it is done well.

Some states and districts recognize this need to enhance leaders’ understanding of how to support teachers, children, and families from pre-K through third grade and have put professional learning opportunities in place. These opportunities sometimes include child care center directors and district and community leaders in order to broaden the network of people with a deeper understanding of the science of child development and how it plays out in pre-K through third grade classrooms.

What does it take for professional learning to be effective?

In a paper released in May 2017, New America explored the components of high-quality professional learning for pre-K teachers, which can also be applied to professional learning for principals. These are the components we identified:

Source: New America

Leaders also need to know how adults learn so that they can help teachers reach their full potential.

Professional learning that incorporates all of these factors is rare because it is resource-intensive. While researchers tend to agree on the general components of high-quality professional learning, there is no agreed upon “right way” to equip leaders to support young learners and drive pre-K through third grade work.

Who is offering leader professional learning on early education and pre-K through third grade alignment?

From January to April of 2019, New America visited three programs in different parts of the country to see what this type of professional learning looks like in practice. In May 2018, we joined Kristie Kauerz and the National P–3 Center in Seattle for a Peer-to-Peer Conversation bringing together designers and managers from 11 programs around the country aimed at strengthening early education leaders to share perspectives, strategies, and challenges. (A brief exploring takeaways from the brain trust will be released this summer). While we identified a few other programs doing this work, it is clear that these types of professional learning opportunities are few and far between.

This blog series offers a closer look into three professional learning programs to expand and deepen leader knowledge of child development and early learning, two of which participated in the Peer-to-Peer Conversation last May. First, we head to San Antonio, Texas, where two school districts brought in the New Teacher Center to equip principals to improve instruction in pre-K and kindergarten. Second, we brave the elements in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to sit in on a state-led pre-k through third grade workshop with cross-sector leaders from rural districts. Finally, we venture to Montgomery, Alabama, where principals from across the state present their capstone projects as the culmination of a year-long program digging into the National Association of Elementary School Principal’s core competencies.

We profile the structures and strategies of these three programs, elevating what professional development operators are learning. We hope that states and local districts will use these profiles as a starting point for the development of their own programs because there will always be a need for well-versed leaders in early and elementary education.

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Related Topics
Workforce Pre-K K-3