Center Director Preparation: How Do We Prepare a Renaissance Woman?

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Oct. 28, 2019

Families searching for child care prioritize programs that employ warm and nurturing teachers, build academic skills, and provide a clean and safe environment. An often overlooked factor is the preparation of the center director. But, how their child is cared for, how families are communicated with, and the functionality of day-to-day operations are key to a family’s satisfaction. These responsibilities, and much more, fall squarely on the shoulders of the center director.

Center directors have tough jobs. They are expected to be instructional leaders, managers of teams, customer service representatives, and the entire C-suite for their organizations. They also have the unique responsibility to serve as community hubs linking their early learning program to elementary schools, health services, social supports, and enrichment activities. For a wide-ranging job with grave responsibility, one might anticipate that the government imposes fairly rigorous and lofty requirements.

The Institute of Medicine's and National Research Council's seminal Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8 consensus report recommends that all child care center directors have at least a bachelor’s degree and knowledge and competencies in early childhood education, administration, and management. However, that recommendation is not the norm among states. New America’s 50-state scan found that only New Jersey and the District of Columbia require a bachelor’s degree for center directors in licensing regulations. Five states require an associate degree, and four states require a director credential.

A degree program isn’t always a proxy for mastering the wide array of competencies that parents and the National Academies seek in center directors. In fact, only three percent (about 100 programs) of the 3,065 early childhood degree programs in the country focus on early childhood management, administration, leadership, or advocacy. As a result, most degree programs only address early childhood education or child development and neglect to prepare directors for their roles as small business owners and managers of a team. Even in the two places that require bachelor’s degrees, New Jersey and D.C., they accept a degree in any field. In D.C., the candidate must have 15 credits in early childhood education, but there is no requirement for credits in management, leadership, or administration. Should a center director seek a degree program specifically in early childhood education leadership, it could prove hard to find. New Jersey has only three degree programs in early childhood education leadership in the whole state, and D.C. has only one.

“These leaders and administrators need to understand developmental science and instructional practices for educators of young children, as well as the ability to use this knowledge to guide their decisions on hiring, supervision, and selection of tools for assessment of children and evaluation of teacher performance, and to inform their development of portfolios of professional learning supports for their settings.” Institute of Medicine and National Research Council

Rather than develop full degree programs in early childhood education leadership, most states offer a director credential that incorporates post-secondary coursework or the state's center director competencies. Thirty states offer a director credential, and McCormick offers an on-line National Director Credential. Of director credential programs, 23 percent require a minimum of an associate degree, 63 percent require college credit in early childhood education, and 58 percent require some college credit in administration, management, or leadership.

For example, Pennsylvania engages institutions of higher education (IHE) to provide the coursework for their director credential program. The state influences program content and quality by requiring IHE to apply and be approved to offer the director credential. The application encourages state priorities such as alignment with core knowledge competencies, articulation agreements, credit for prior learning, appropriate instructional modality, and scholarships. IHE must verify the proposed faculty are approved instructors in the Pennsylvania Quality Assurance System. The state also provides a Business Course Framework to assist IHE “in developing the management and administrative content of their college coursework for the Director Credential program.”

Another example is Vermont's Program Director Credential which includes competencies organized around core knowledge areas and aligned to a career ladder and licensing regulations. The competencies for directors address the dual instructional leadership and managerial role of a center director by including the competencies for a teacher and adding operational and managerial competencies needed for the administration of a program. From the state’s perspective, creating competencies is important. They enable directors to engage in self-assessment, set professional goals, and form a basis for performance evaluation. They enable IHE or professional development providers to organize coursework and training to meet licensing requirements. And, to make the credentialing process easier for the public to navigate, Vermont hired Northern Lights at Community College of Vermont to make the information easy to find, offer counselors to help candidates through the application process, and to register students.

In addition to pre-service training like a degree or credential, there are also in-service resources available to directors. Seventeen states have early childhood leadership academies that may include coaching or workshops. Some states offer training on various topics for clock hour credits or employ topical specialists to offer technical assistance to directors. Online resources may be available through a state contract or for purchase online. These include tools to assist with business practices like budgeting, taxes, contracts, payroll, or hiring as well as tools for administrative tasks like taking attendance and providing documentation to meet licensing regulations. For directors funded by Head Start or Child Care Development Block Grant, national or state-level training and technical assistance centers, including the National Center on Program Management and Fiscal Operations, are available.

Because leaders are the second most important in-school factor impacting a child’s achievement, both pre-service pathways and in-service supports are critical. Population growth is creating an urgent need for pipelines of well-prepared leaders. Employment as a preschool* or child care director is projected to grow seven percent from 2018 to 2028, which is faster than the projected average growth for all occupations. As states grow their early care and education capacity, they should prioritize center director preparation pathways that teach the full breadth of competencies required to be an effective leader. We ask a great deal of center directors because their performance matters a great deal. The adults they lead, the children they educate, and the families they support each benefit when the leader succeeds.

* While New America typically uses the term pre-K, preschool is the term used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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