Leadership matters. A strong leader can create a positive organizational climate, manage conflict well, and inspire employees to do their best work. But being a strong leader isn’t easy. That’s why there are countless books, classes, seminars, and articles that aim to help people improve their leadership skills. There are few natural-born leaders; it takes knowledge and experience to develop these skills.
As we’ve written before, the importance of leadership in the field of early childhood education is no exception. Leaders not only impact how well a school, child care center, or Head Start program runs, but also the quality of learning experiences offered to children. In fact, research shows that school leaders have the second largest impact on student achievement after teachers. Leaders in child care centers and elementary schools-- both center directors and principals-- are often expected to be both operational and instructional leaders. As operational leaders they must ensure finances are in order, communicate with parents, manage personnel, and utilize their limited resources well, among other things. As instructional leaders they are charged with adopting curricula and assessments and working with teachers to improve teaching and student learning.
With all that these administrators are responsible for, much of their day is spent “fighting fires” instead of providing instructional leadership. As one Austin principal explained, “Where I am this time of year, this particular year, I just feel like I am a manager...I have spent a lot more time with personnel issues, which takes away your time from working with teachers. I would love to be the instructional leader, but realistically I don’t feel that way this year.” Leaders need sufficient time, resources, and expertise to effectively hire, train, and evaluate teachers working with young children. Unfortunately, the requirements for training and certifying both principals and center directors fall short in several ways, especially in imparting the latest research on high quality practices for child development and early learning.
The National Research Council and the National Academy of Medicine’s seminal Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth to Age 8: A Unifying Foundation consensus report urges states, higher education, and organizations to revisit their standards and policies that “shape the professional learning of care and education leaders [to] encompass the foundational knowledge and competencies needed to support high quality practices for child development and early learning in their organizations.” (The report lays out the knowledge and competencies for leadership in settings with children birth to age 8 in Box 7-3 on page 344.)
While the jobs of center directors and principals are not that different, the current expectations for them are, and the policies and standards shaping each position reflect that. As a result, leaders in both roles can face unique challenges to leading early childhood classrooms and programs.
For center directors, the qualification requirements are all over the map. As of 2013, 10 states didn’t require center directors to have more than a high school diploma. A few states didn’t even require that. Many states don’t require a specific director credential either. Unfortunately, even when there are specific requirements for center directors, the focus is less on instructional leadership and more on operational leadership. In Transforming the Workforce, experts find that the competency statements for early childhood education leaders that do exist, they “have to do with how well a leader can develop and manage a well-functioning organization.”
As Transforming the Workforce points out, this emphasis on operational leadership is needed because center directors are oftentimes running their own small businesses. They don’t have the support of a larger school district. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of training on instructional leadership. Center directors are often also responsible for choosing a curriculum and assessments, and selecting professional development opportunities for teachers and it’s crucial that they have a deep understanding of child development, the importance of adult-child interactions and nurturing relationships from the earliest age, and how young children learn.
The challenges for principals are different. As explained in the report, “competency statements for leaders from organizations representing elementary school principals and chief state school officers are much more focused than those representing early childhood professions on knowledge and skills required for instructional leadership.” There are also stronger higher education requirements for principals-- in most states they need to have a master’s degree and a special certification. It’s not the years of education and experience that principals are lacking-- it’s the type of education and experience.
Current principal preparation programs too often skip over the early years. As our team found in a series of principal focus groups last year, principal preparation rarely delves into child development or covers what appropriate instruction looks like in the early grades. Many elementary school principals come to the job having only taught in high school. This is especially concerning since more than 60 percent of elementary school principals now oversee pre-K programs.
There are many challenges to ensuring that all early education leaders have the right knowledge and competencies to support high-quality instruction in their schools and programs. Transforming the Workforce recommends that experts come to a consensus on a set of core competencies for center directors and that programs align their standards and qualification requirements accordingly. The report also recommends that all early childhood lead teachers and leaders earn a BA with specialized training in the field. This would be a big lift for center directors. First, existing institutes of higher education don’t necessarily have the capacity to meet the demand. Second, there is no guarantee for center directors that their low compensation will improve with additional education. This issue must be addressed for both center directors and teachers.
On the principal side, the report recommends state policymakers look to Illinois as an example of a state that has recently revamped their principal policies to incorporate early education throughout. Our team highlighted the work happening in Illinois in our focus group briefs last year. The Transforming the Workforce report also suggests that the Department of Education define a “highly qualified principal.” It’s unlikely that the new administration will be providing this level of guidance on educator policies in the next few years. However, states and organizations could come to consensus on a definition that aligns with core competencies.
New America is in the midst of a project that will map and compare early education leader policies in all 50 states. We’ll be looking at preparation requirements, licensure, professional learning, and compensation. We hope this scan will shed light on the different expectations for center directors and principals, identify areas for improvement in state policy, and highlight which states are leading on leaders.