Early Education Preparation for Principals: A Look at the Leading States

Blog Post
Feb. 24, 2016

Because research suggests principals have the second largest in-school impact on student achievement after teachers, two of our From Crawling to Walking report’s indicators focus on the preparation required of elementary school principals prior to assuming school leadership. In our scan, we award states points for requiring elementary school principals to have preparation in early language and literacy development and early childhood education (ECE).

Currently, only four states require elementary principals to have preparation in early language and literacy development prior to leading a school: Minnesota, Illinois, Tennessee, and Idaho. South Carolina is in the process of making this a requirement for principals. While principals most likely had some type of literacy coursework as part of their teacher preparation, we think it’s important that they get additional and deeper exposure to early language and literacy development during their preparation for becoming a principal. Having such knowledge can help principals know what to look for when they are observing reading and writing instruction.

Principals also need specialized preparation in early childhood education. As the map below illustrates, only one state, Illinois, specifically includes ECE content and experiences as part of its principal licensure process. While only Illinois requires principals to learn ECE content, five other states at least require elementary school principals to take coursework covering child development: Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and Vermont. (We’ll be writing more on Illinois in a forthcoming series of briefs on elementary school principals.)

Last summer, new research from a National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) survey suggested many new elementary school principals lack adequate knowledge of appropriate instructional methods for teaching young children. One of the key roles that an elementary school principal must fulfill is serving as the school’s instructional leader for all teachers. Acting as an instructional leader means regularly taking the time to visit classrooms, observe teachers, and provide useful feedback in an effort to continuously improve the level of instruction students are receiving. Successful principals routinely sit down and analyze student data with teachers in order to adjust instruction to better meet student needs.

This hands-on approach for improving instruction is especially important in the early grades since observational studies of PreK-3rd grade classrooms have generally found that the quality of teaching needs improvement, particularly when it comes to providing instructional support to students. Without adequate training in early childhood education, elementary school principals are unable to provide high-quality feedback to PreK-3rd grade teachers operating in classrooms that should look very different from a typical fourth or fifth grade classroom.

Principals typically also have the important job of staffing, which means they are hiring or moving teachers into and out of early grade classrooms. Research has suggested that school principals often respond to the accountability pressures of No Child Left Behind by moving weaker teachers down to the lower, non-testing grades. Principals with expertise in ECE are more likely to resist this pressure since they correctly view the lower grades as the foundation for equipping students with the skills needed to be successful in later grades.

The results of our policy scan clearly demonstrate the need for more states to strengthen principal preparation requirements to ensure that elementary school principals, especially incoming principals, have a good working knowledge of early childhood education. Only with a solid grasp of the fundamentals of high-quality early childhood education can principals serve as strong leaders for early education to ensure that our youngest students receive instruction and support of the highest caliber.