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Principal Prep in New Jersey (and Much of the Country) Lacks Early Ed Focus

While a great deal of time, research, and funding has been dedicated to trying to improve teacher quality, less investment has been directed toward improving the effectiveness of another key contributor to student success: school leaders. In fact, research shows that after teachers, principals are the most important in-school factor impacting student achievement. In addition to their host of administrative duties, principals are usually responsible for recruiting, developing, evaluating, and retaining teachers. They also tend to have authority over other key decisions impacting instruction, such as which curricula and assessments a school uses.

With more children attending publicly-funded pre-K now than ever before, and a majority of elementary school principals working in schools that serve pre-K students, it’s increasingly important that elementary school leaders have a strong understanding of pre-K and early learning and know how to translate their skillset to this population. As explained in the National Academy of Medicine’s seminal Transforming the Workforce report, early childhood leaders and administrators “...need to understand developmental science and instructional practices for educators of young children, as well as [have] 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.” Transforming the Workforce lays out the specific knowledge and competencies elementary school principals need here.

In May, New America released a 50-state scan of state-level policies on pre-service requirements, in-service opportunities, and compensation for elementary school principals. This project included a series of interactive maps to explore how states compare on high-level policies like the amount of higher education required for elementary school principals, whether preparation programs need to offer coursework on early learning, and whether principals need to have any prior experience working in an elementary school. Our scan found that most states are lacking meaningful policies to ensure that elementary school principals are equipped to be early learning leaders.

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at UC Berkeley recently released a report that digs deeper into this issue. The New Jersey Department of Education commissioned CSCCE to “assess the inclusion of early education in required course content and internships” for the state’s elementary school principal preparation programs. The resulting report, Early Childhood Preparation for School Leaders: Lessons from New Jersey Principal Certification Programs, analyzes 18 of the 23 New Jersey institutions of higher education that offer principal certification programs. While New America’s scan sheds light on state requirements and supports, CSCCE’s report take a closer look at what is actually happening on the ground.

Approximately 52,700 children attended publicly-funded pre-K in New Jersey last year. And while the state has a mixed-delivery system, a majority of children are enrolled in pre-K in public elementary schools, which are overseen by elementary school principals. To attain a principal certificate, the state requires principals to have a master’s degree from an approved principal preparation program, five years of education experience (not grade-specific), and a 300-hour internship in educational leadership (also not grade-specific). While the certificate qualifies a principal to lead pre-K through 12th grade, CSCCE found that principals in preparation programs “receive limited exposure to content related to children younger than five, scant training in the supervision and support of early care and education teachers, and few strategies to integrate and align instruction across pre-K-3 classrooms.”

According to the report, principal certification programs are offered in multiple formats: 28 percent are offered completely online, 33 percent are completely on-campus, and 61 percent are blended. Candidates can pursue their certificates in stand-alone programs or as part of a master’s degree program. The programs analyzed in the survey are heavily dependent on part-time faculty: 76 percent are adjunct.

Course content in many programs lacks a strong early education focus. Less than one-quarter of programs required coursework on “human development and learning across the lifespan from birth to adulthood.” They found that just over half of New Jersey programs “required course content on leadership and management of public pre-K programs, and only 65 percent of programs required coursework related to knowledge of competencies for early educators.” This type of coursework was usually optional.

CSCCE also found that aspiring elementary school principals often do not have the opportunity to complete their internships in schools with strong pre-K programs: “More than one-quarter of programs reported a lack of access to quality schools with pre-K classrooms for internships as a challenge.” A significant body of research suggests that principal preparation is more effective when coursework is coupled with meaningful clinical experiences, such as internships. Having field experiences with young children is especially important for principals who have not taught in the early grades. Most New Jersey programs give candidates significant discretion in choosing where to conduct their internship, and almost all candidates select the school at which they are already employed.  

New America’s research, and additional research from the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Academy of Medicine, suggests that what CSCCE found in New Jersey is indicative of a greater trend nationwide. CSCCE offers multiple recommendations for New Jersey that other states can learn from as well:

  1. Review and align current principal certification to encompass early learning. P-12 principal certification should require education and experience specific to pre-K and the early grades, especially for those planning to work in elementary schools.  Other states can look to Illinoisas an example of how to incorporate pre-K content into principal preparation. CSCCE also recommends adding a PreK-3rd grade specialization.

  2. Strengthen program content and equity across the age span required for candidates in principal certification programs. Course content should be aligned with the research on child development and early learning. This includes ensuring that higher education faculty have the resources and knowledge they need to teach this content to aspiring principals. States should also increase opportunities for internships in schools with pre-K programs that focus on the early grades.  

  3. Strengthen ongoing professional development for current principals.Unlike most states, New Jersey does offer voluntary professional learning for principals to better understand what learning and development should look like in pre-K and the early grades. CSCCE recommends that these efforts be both mandatory and easily accessible throughout the state.

  4. Regularly collect data on elementary school leaders. To better guide policy and practice, CSCCE recommends the state collect better data on principal preparation, training, and professional learning, as well as principal preparation programs.

Employing elementary school principals who are prepared to lead our youngest students is beneficial for both leaders and students. Principals who are better prepared are likely to find their role more manageable, and consequently may be less likely to resign. Limiting leadership turnover means more stability for teachers and students and makes meaningful school reform efforts possible. These principals are also more likely to make developmentally- appropriate decisions regarding the instruction, assessment, and discipline of younger students.