Out Today: 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

A majority of three- and four-year-olds spend their days in a pre-K classroom, often located in an elementary school or child care center. While both settings serve pre-K students, the educational requirements and expectations for the principals and center directors leading these programs vary significantly. The discrepancies are dramatic: 40 states require elementary school principals to have a master’s degree or higher, yet 41 states allow center directors to have less than an associate’s degree.

Today, our Early & Elementary Education Policy team released 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, which finds that although child care center directors and elementary principals have similar roles and responsibilities-- for instance, they both are usually responsible for hiring and developing staff, managing facilities, and choosing curricula and assessments-- the qualification requirements for these positions are drastically different within and across states.

Our state-by-state comparison found that child care directors are consistently held to lower standards than elementary school principals, even though both influence the quality of children’s learning experiences and determine how well their programs run day-to-day. In all states, licensure requirements for child care center directors are less rigorous than those for elementary principals.

For example, most states require principals to have a master’s degree, prior teaching experience, and clinical experience through their preparation programs. Only New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC require center directors to have a bachelor’s degree. And in 27 states, people can become center directors without any work experience in child care if they have enough formal education. Center director salaries tend to reflect these low qualifications instead of the complex nature of the job.

Pre-K attendance can have a wide range of benefits for children, but effective leaders are a key component of program quality. In fact, research shows that after teachers, school leaders are the greatest in-school factor impacting student achievement. Just because center directors may be leading smaller groups of children and teachers, doesn’t mean their work is any less important. Setting low expectations for pre-K leaders in any setting can jeopardize the quality of learning experiences children receive. Low compensation and limited support can also threaten quality and increase leader turnover.

The report offers several recommendations for states to better align the two sectors and improve both elementary school principal and center director quality:

  • Increase center director qualification requirements to reflect child development research.

  • Require elementary school principals to have teaching experience or clinical experience specifically in elementary schools.

  • Increase professional learning opportunities for both principals and center directors.

States would do well to acknowledge the similar roles elementary school principals and center directors play in serving early learners. Such reforms could help ensure that all pre-K leaders have the knowledge and competencies to effectively support young children and their teachers. Policymakers and researchers can readily view our data and easily compare how policies concerning center directors and principals differ within and across state lines, with this series of interactive maps.

In conducting this scan of state policies, we partnered with the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, who today released their L.E.A.D. Early Childhood™ Clearinghouse. This project houses national data on programs that prepare and support early education leaders, state standards, and policy levers to improve the early childhood leadership workforce. McCormick’s online database makes new data on leaders accessible to stakeholders and encourages a cross-sector systems approach to improving the qualifications and ongoing professional development of early childhood leaders.

Author:

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