States Should Equip Principals to Lead the Youngest Learners in their Schools

Blog Post
Oct. 26, 2018

Each day thousands of elementary school principals work tirelessly to ensure that our elementary schools are nurturing and educational places for teachers and students. Increasingly those students are as young as three years old. Yet a 2015 survey found that even though a majority of elementary principals are now responsible for pre-K classrooms, only about 20 percent of those principals feel well-versed in early childhood education.

As my colleagues Roxanne Garza and Melissa Tooley wrote in a recent blog, October is National Principals Month, and it’s an opportunity to acknowledge the hard work of these sometimes overlooked professionals. As leaders of their schools, it’s no surprise that principals play a critical role in school quality. Research continues to reveal how important the early years are to children’s long-term success, and principals need to understand how young children learn best. They must be able to support their pre-K teachers, as well as their kindergarten through third grade teachers.

States and higher education institutions can do a better job preparing and supporting principals to be strong leaders for PreK-3rd grade teachers. In 2017, New America conducted a 50-state scan of pre-K leaders policies based on survey data sent to state departments of education. We also scanned state websites and contacted officials via email and phone to fill in gaps in the survey responses. We found that state regulations and policies do little to ensure that elementary school principals enter their roles with formal knowledge about how to support teachers of young children. The map below shows that only nine states (those in blue and teal) reported that they explicitly require principal preparation programs to offer coursework in early learning and/or child development.

Principal ECE coursework map.png

The Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley released a report earlier this year digging into course content of elementary school principal preparation programs in New Jersey. Principals in New Jersey must have a masters degree and certification but most of their training doesn’t have to be specific to a certain grade level or age group. The researchers found that in New Jersey certification programs, principals “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.”

Of course, New Jersey isn’t the only state that has a long way to go to ensure that principal preparation better equips school leaders to manage the early grades. According to our scan, Alaska, Nebraska, and South Carolina are the only states that require elementary principals to have taught in the elementary grades, let alone the early grades. We also found that only ten states require elementary school principals to have clinical experiences in elementary schools during preparation. Next year, our team is going to dig into the policy changes that Illinois has made to its principal licensure to focus more intentionally on early childhood education. All Illinois principal preparation programs must now incorporate early learning into their curricula and provide candidates with internships across the PreK–12 continuum. We’re going to find out more about how implementation is faring and identify lessons for other states.

While better preparation programs can make a difference, as one Minnesota principal explained in an interview with our team, “Until you’re a principal, you haven’t learned how to be a principal.” He felt that a lot of what principals do is best learned on the job. Ensuring that principals have on-going support on-the-job can be just as important as quality preparation. Not to mention it’s the only way to reach the thousands of principals already leading schools who lack knowledge around early education.

Only 12 states responded to our survey stating that they offered professional learning for principals around early education or PreK–3rd alignment. Principals need to not only understand pre-K, but the entire early learning continuum. As instructional leaders they make decisions around staffing, curriculum, assessment, and more that impact how children’s learning builds from one year to the next. This past May, New America participated in a peer-to-peer convening of PreK-3rd leadership programs hosted by the National P-3 Center. The National P-3 Center offered the P-3 Executive Leadership Certificate Program for principals, district leaders, and early care and education administrators in Washington state. The convening brought together a handful of states, districts, and organizations running principal professional learning programs focused on early education alignment to share successes and challenges. We’ll be releasing a paper on our takeaways from the convening in early 2019. And next year New America will visit some PreK-3rd grade leadership programs in action and write a blog series to spotlight promising practices for policymakers and professionals looking to strengthen principals’ role as early learning leaders.

With just five days left this Principals Month, show a principal in your life how much you appreciate their hard work. But let’s take this conversation beyond the month of October and think more strategically about how we can support principals to be effective instructional leaders for their youngest learners all year long.

Related Topics
Workforce K-3 Pre-K Teachers and Leaders