Event Recap: The Power of Leaders in Early Learning

Blog Post
July 21, 2017

This week, New America’s Early & Elementary Education Policy team hosted an event that brought together early education leaders and policy experts to discuss the role of leaders in fostering high-quality early learning and how local, state, and federal policies can best support these leaders.

Abbie Lieberman presented findings from her report, A Tale of Two Pre-K Leaders: How State Policies for Center Directors and Principals Leading Pre-K Programs Differ, and Why They Shouldn’t, which finds that the qualifications and compensation for child care center directors and elementary school principals are drastically different, even though these positions have similar roles and responsibilities. The paper offers recommendations for how state policies can support center directors and principals to be stronger early education leaders.

The event’s first panel brought together two center directors and one elementary school principal from three different states. The panelists talked through their typical days, which include interacting with students, observing teachers in classrooms, holding staff meetings, giving tours, and wanting to spend as little time as possible in front of their office computer.

The center directors also explained other responsibilities that come with running a business in addition to operating an early learning program. Jennifer Ladner, School Director of Tulsa Educare in Oklahoma, and Pearlie Harris, Director of Royal Castle Child Development Center in Louisiana, both mentioned checking on the budget and finances as part of their daily routine. In addition, Harris pointed out that she is always making sure that her center is complying with the various federal and state regulations they must follow.

Lack of Preparation Means Learning on the Job

When asked if they felt prepared for their role, all three panelists agreed that a lot was learned on the job and prior preparation wasn’t sufficient. Ladner said, “I don’t think they prepare you well for teaching in the classroom and they definitely don’t prepare you well for managing a school.” Mike Budisch, Principal of Merton Primary School in Wisconsin, had previously taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade before becoming principal, and he credits leaning on early childhood educators for guidance about the early grades.

Budisch highlighted the importance of joint professional development opportunities and seminars in early childhood for principals and center directors. For center directors, conferences held by National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and local community networks with other small businesses or child care centers help leverage their skills and improve the quality of the program - and they are especially enticing when they count as clock hours needed for state licensing.

“A Tale of Two Systems”

The fragmentation of center directors and school principals isn’t just apparent at the local level. At the second panel with policy and practice experts, Kristie Kauerz, Director of the National P-3 Center at the University of Washington, noted how it’s complicated to directly compare center directors with principals. While there is a lot in common in these leaders’ roles and day-to-day responsibilities, there are also vast differences because the early learning and elementary school systems are built upon different financial and accountability infrastructures. “To assume a one-to-one correlation - that what’s good for birth to five is equally good for the K-12 side may be a false equivalency.”

It’s important to acknowledge this when we think about policy actions. Kauerz pointed out that when we talk about upping the qualifications for leaders in the birth to five system, we need to make clear whom we are talking about. Many states have different policies and regulations for child care directors, state pre-K directors, and Head Start administrators; it’s not as straightforward as the K-12 system.

Teri Talan, Director of Policy Initiatives at the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, agreed that we need to consider all early learning leaders in the conversation. “They’re doing the same work and we should not allow the funding to determine the quality of leadership, just like we don’t want to allow market forces to determine the quality of the teaching.” Talan shared findings of the L.E.A.D. Early Childhood Clearinghouse, which found that there are 27 times more degree programs to prepare principals than there are for center directors or leaders outside the formal school system.

Language Matters

One thing that could help to advance and professionalize the early childhood education profession is a clear definition and outline of expectations for the role. Marica Cox Mitchell, Deputy Executive Director for Early Learning Systems at NAEYC, stated, “Our inability to coherently describe what we do negatively impacts our case for compensation.” To bridge the silos, institutes of higher education need clearer expectations about what graduates in their field should be able to do. Mitchell helped launch NAEYC’s Power to the Profession initiative to establish a unifying framework of knowledge and competencies, qualifications, and standards to define the early childhood education profession.

Panelists stressed the importance of owning the profession and making clear the expectations for preparation, practice, and compensation. Clearly defining the early childhood education profession will help the public better understand the roles. When asked what would make her job more effective, Harris stated, “Change the way we say the name. Stop saying daycare and nursery - we’re educating our young children. We should call it what it is.”

You can find a recording of the event here.