Which States are Leading on Early Childhood Leaders?

And Where Can All States Make Improvements?
Blog Post
Aug. 7, 2017

What do California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have in common? Sure, they all have large populations and cities with dedicated baseball fans. But according to the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership’s recently released L.E.A.D. Early Childhood Clearinghouse, they are also leading the nation in policies to support early education leaders. The Clearinghouse gives a snapshot of the current landscape for center directors, school principals, and family child care providers. This comprehensive resource provides data on state leader policies, compensation, higher education program offerings, and more.

(Full disclosure: New America and the McCormick Center partnered on the data collection for this project. New America’s work resulted in 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, released in May).

Effective leaders are an essential component of a high-quality early education program. Program leaders, whether they are center directors or elementary school principals, should have knowledge of administration and program management, coupled with a solid understanding of how young children learn. Leaders determine how a program is run and establish conditions for high-quality instruction, learning opportunities, and care that children receive. Yet, until now, there has been limited information on the more than 250,000 early childhood administrators who lead early learning programs and the opportunities afforded to them.

McCormick collected data from multiple sources and rated states on five policy levers “to assess the degree to which [they] support high-quality program leadership standards.” The policy levers are:

  1. Administrator Qualifications in Child Care Licensing

  2. Administrator Credential

  3. Principal Licensure

  4. Administrator Qualifications in QRIS

  5. Administrator Qualifications in State Pre-K Programs

McCormick created a detailed rubric that aligns with the 2015 Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8: A Unifying Foundation report, which recommends that all early childhood lead teachers, including program leaders, have a bachelor’s degree and specialized knowledge and skills in child development and early learning. The report also outlines specific competencies needed to be an effective administrative and instructional leader. While California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania rose to the top on McCormick’s rubric, no state earned more than six out of ten possible points. It’s clear that all states have substantial room for growth when it comes to enacting policies that support leaders of young children, but what policies made these three states stand out?


California rose to the top largely because it excelled in one policy area: Administrator Qualifications in QRIS. The Golden State incentivizes center directors to earn more education and training through its quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). Center directors must earn an administrator credential or hold a master’s degree with specialization in early childhood education and take courses in administration to reach the highest level of the QRIS.

McCormick points out that there are only “ten community colleges and three universities offering degrees in early childhood administration” in California. Lack of program offerings is one potential barrier that center directors could face in meeting these higher education requirements. In comparison, aspiring principals have plenty of options for higher education, with 174 elementary principal degree programs available from 56 universities in the state. This is a trend throughout the country-- McCormick found that there are 27 times as many degree programs to prepare principals as there are for child care administrators.

California’s QRIS holds directors to a higher standard than most states. Unfortunately, participation in California’s QRIS is optional and currently only 49 of California's 58 counties participate. Child care licensing requirements, which a much larger number of programs adhere to, have minimal requirements for center directors.


Illinois, where the McCormick Center is located, has made important changes to their leader preparation in recent years. The state reformed its principal licensure law in 2010, requiring pre-K content to be incorporated into principal preparation programs. All principal preparation programs in Illinois must provide candidates with field experiences in the early years too.

While child care licensing law holds administrators to very minimal standards, the state’s QRIS and pre-K program expect more from leaders. Administrators must have a bachelor’s degree to earn the highest QRIS rating and to be eligible for state-funded pre-K.


Pennsylvania scored in the middle range for all policy levers. It’s one of only a few states to require all directors of licensed programs to have at least an associate’s degree with coursework in early education. All center directors also need to have at least one year of experience working with children. The state offers a competency-based administrator credential that is embedded into the statewide QRIS. The administrator credential is required for all directors of state-funded pre-K programs as well. On the principal side, the state does incorporate pre-K content into state licensure requirements.

California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are each taking some important steps to improve leader quality. In all three of these states, and every other state in the country, however, center directors are consistently held to lower standards than principals. Some states do not require center directors to have any higher education in early childhood education or experience working with children. There is a disconnect between what experts in the field understand is required for the job as an early childhood program administrator and what policymakers choose to require.

The low salaries that center directors are paid reflect this discrepancy. The graphic below shows just how much less center directors are paid than principals in each state according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. 

Salary Data

McCormick also includes data on the demographic makeup of early education leaders, based on national principal data and a sample of center director data from nine state registries. Center directors are overwhelmingly female (95 percent), while almost 40 percent of elementary school principals are male. Approximately 80 percent of leaders in both child care centers and elementary schools are white.

Despite growing student diversity, K-12 educator is overwhelmingly white in general. Findings from a recent University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University study suggest that there may be gendered and racial biases in principal pathways that lead to an overrepresentation of white male principals. While the child care workforce is more racially diverse than in K–12, these statistics show that people of color are underrepresented in administrative and leadership roles.

All students, and especially those from diverse backgrounds, benefit from having diverse school teachers and leaders. Unfortunately, McCormick and New America were unable to find meaningful state initiatives focused on increasing leader diversity. All states should take steps to encourage and support diverse educators to pursue leadership roles in the early education and K-12 space and better equip those leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to work with young learners.
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