A State to Look to This Principals Month: Illinois

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Oct. 1, 2019

Today is October 1st, which in addition to shorter, cooler days and the inundation of Halloween decorations, also means the start of National Principals Month. Each day, thousands of principals make sure their elementary schools are places where teachers and students can thrive. This month is an opportunity to acknowledge the hard work of these professionals who have a sizeable impact on student achievement.

In Preparing Principals for Pre-K in Illinois: The Prairie State’s Story of Reform and Implementation, released today, I explore the bold steps one state has taken to reform principal preparation. Back in 2010, with the goal of improving student outcomes and closing achievement gaps, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation making significant changes to principal preparation and licensure policies. While the reform was largely focused on instructional leadership, the legislation also included something unique to Illinois–- a call to prepare all principals to lead pre-K.

To be effective instructional leaders, elementary school principals must understand how all children in their schools learn. Teaching and learning should look different in pre-K and kindergarten than it does in fourth grade, and principals need to be able to make that distinction. Principals are also naturally positioned as leaders in their communities to connect with other early childhood program leaders to create a seamless continuum of learning and support for children and families, even when pre-K classrooms are not located in their buildings.

A few years ago, New America surveyed state departments of education in a 50-state scan of policies related to principals as pre-K leaders. Only nine states reported that they explicitly require principal preparation programs to offer coursework in early learning and/or child development, and only ten states said they require elementary school principals to have clinical experiences in elementary schools during preparation. We found that, in general, state principal preparation policies do not address the role of principals as early learning leaders.

That’s why Illinois’s reforms around principals and early learning deserve a closer look.

This timeline presents an overview of the road to reform from 2000 to 2010 and key developments in implementation since then. While there are many important components of Illinois’s reform, New America’s brief focuses on how different principal preparation programs have incorporated early education via curricula and field experiences. It also offers lessons and recommendations for other states looking to follow Illinois and ensure principals are equipped to lead pre-K and early grade classrooms.

Programs have taken different approaches to integrating early childhood content into their coursework. For instance, some institutions of higher education have created new courses, others have brought in faculty with early childhood backgrounds or collaborated across departments to take advantage of expertise in their institution. However, there is still room for improvement, as a 2016 evaluation found that early childhood content is still only superficial or voluntary in many programs.

The new licensure rules require all principal candidates to participate in a competency-based internship with instructional leadership opportunities that mirror those of a first-year principal. The structure of the internship, however, depends largely on the quality of partnerships between preparation programs and their local school districts. For instance, students at the University of Illinois at Chicago complete a full-time, year-long residency in Chicago Public Schools, usually outside of the school where they worked. Their salary for the year is paid for by Chicago Public Schools because the district views this as a worthwhile investment in its leadership. This structure, however, is not the case for all districts. But due to district funding constraints, prospective principals in many programs continue teaching full-time and complete internship requirements in their own time.

Illinois’s story is evidence that meaningful policy change does not happen overnight. The legislation was in the making for approximately 10 years, and almost a decade into implementation leaders are still figuring out what works. There still is not consensus in the field regarding where, when, and how are the best ways to impart early learning and child development knowledge on school leaders. Analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of how and when early childhood is included is an important next step for Illinois and the field at large.

As the field considers these issues, there is much other states can learn from Illinois’s experience. And as states pursue reform in both school leadership and early education, they should look for opportunities to align these efforts. You can find a half-dozen takeaways from Illinois’s experience for states looking to strengthen principals as early learning leaders here.

This Principals Month, I challenge state decisionmakers to think big. Legislative reform big. Acknowledge the hard work of these often overlooked professionals not just with cards and candy, but with real changes to policy and practice. For more on how other states and districts are addressing these challenges, check out New America’s growing body of work on principals as early learning leaders:

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