Out Today: Principals’ Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in PreK-3rd

Until recently, principals have been largely overlooked with most education policy attention focused on improving teacher quality. Principals play a central role in supporting teaching quality and are strongly linked to student achievement. In elementary schools, principals must be able to foster a school culture that values early education, to understand what high-quality teaching looks like in the early grades, and to provide useful feedback and support to early grade teachers and increasingly pre-K teachers as more elementary schools offer pre-K for three-and four-year-olds.

Our Early & Elementary Education Policy team was interested in learning about how elementary school principals think about pre-K and the early grades of elementary school. We had questions such as: Do principals think about staffing those grades differently than they do upper elementary grades? Do they differentiate the kind of feedback they give pre-K or kindergarten teachers? Do principals recognize good instruction in the early grades? Do they understand how young children learn best and do they encourage teachers to use appropriate instructional strategies?

To help us answer these types of questions, we asked the New York-based FDR Group to conduct five focus groups with elementary school principals in San Francisco, New York City, Minneapolis, Austin, and Orlando. (You can read the FDR Group's report here.)Two of the focus groups also included directors of early childhood programs in order to dig into the relationships between elementary schools and non-public school pre-K programs.

Today, we are releasing a series of six briefs titled, Principal's Corner: Perspectives on Teaching and Learning in PreK-3rd Grade, that explore the findings of our focus groups. Our big take away is principals recognize that pre-K and the early grades are important, but feel they lack what they need to promote high-quality teaching during these years. As one Orlando principal explains, “since I taught fifth grade for so many years I don’t feel as comfortable giving advice to the kindergarten teachers the way I might with a new fifth grade teacher.” Multiple principals in our groups echoed this sentiment.

Here’s a quick description of what each brief covers:

In the final brief, Bringing It All Together: Elementary Principals are Key to Strong PreK-3rd Grade Classrooms, we recommend the following four actions for states and school districts to better support elementary school principals:
  • States should incorporate early childhood education into principal preparation.
  • States and school districts should provide ongoing professional learning opportunities related to early education.
  • States and school districts should invest in opportunities to bring elementary school principals and center directors together.
  • States should take advantage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support this work.
To see more sustained gains from pre-K programs, attention must be put on what’s happening in the early grades of elementary schools. As school leaders, principals have the ability to do just that. In the coming months we’ll be writing more extensively on the important role that principals and directors of birth-to-five early education programs can play in fostering children’s success."

Authors:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Elementary Education Policy team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade

Shayna Cook is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project. Cook researches and reports on innovation in family engagement, new technologies, and digital equity issues concerning children from birth through third grade.

Aaron Loewenberg is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. He is a member of the  Early & Elementary Education team, where he provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade.