Conclusion and Recommendations

Concluding Thoughts

Even though the job of overseeing pre-K classrooms does not necessarily change based on state lines, the policies related to early education leaders do. Many principals and center directors spend their days similarly, but the qualifications, training, workforce supports, and compensation for these sectors are quite different within and across states. The state policy systems surrounding center directors and principals create different challenges for each. From our state data collection, leader interviews, and review of the research, we have identified some of the primary challenges that inhibit some early education leaders from reaching their full potential.

Most existing principal preparation programs focus heavily on the business side of the job and instructional strategies relevant for older students. Most states do not require preparation programs to cover early childhood education and development through coursework or clinical experience and do not require aspiring elementary school principals to have teaching experience in the early grades. As a result, there is a lot about early learning that principals are left to learn on the job. Unfortunately, professional learning on early childhood education is also rare, so even after years leading an elementary school, principals may continue to lack the skills and knowledge they need to promote high-quality teaching during these crucial early years of school. Considering that a majority of elementary school principals oversee pre-K classrooms for three- and four-year-olds, this shortcoming needs to be addressed.  

State policies related to center directors are more haphazard. Center directors may be responsible for following licensing regulations, QRIS requirements, director credential requirements, some combination of those, or none of them at all. Efforts to improve quality are also not necessarily supported at the state level. For instance, program directors may earn a bachelor’s degree because it is required through the federal Head Start program or because it is recommended for accreditation by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. State licensing standards are the most standardized measure, but still vary from state to state, and tend to have minimal requirements for center director education and training that do not reflect the complexity of the job. In the same vein, center director salaries tend to mirror the job’s low education requirements as opposed to the knowledge and competencies required to do the job well. While we did not collect data on the details of curricula, in Transforming the Workforce, experts found that the competency statements for early childhood education leaders that exist “have to do with how well a leader can develop and manage a well-functioning organization.” The focus for center directors is less on instructional leadership and more on operational leadership. Operations are important since center directors are often running their own businesses and cannot turn to a school district for support, but it cannot be to the exclusion of education on instructional leadership, since the early years are so important for every child.

Recommendations for States

While there is much work that can be done at the local level, the Wallace Foundation has called attention to the power states have to improve leader preparation requirements because they are responsible for program approval and can reform licensure. States would benefit from acknowledging the similarities between the roles of elementary school principals and center directors overseeing pre-K classrooms. To the extent possible, states should think about these roles together and better align policies for all leaders of programs serving early learners. Ideally, principals and center directors would have opportunities for joint professional learning, giving these early childhood leaders the opportunity to build relationships, coordinate efforts, and ensure smoother transitions between programs for children and families.

Such reforms could help ensure that both center directors and elementary school principals start their jobs with the administrative know-how to run a business and the competencies needed to be strong instructional leaders for early childhood educators. They would also ensure that leaders stay current on the latest research in child development and work to continually improve their practice. Lastly, they could promote job stability so that talented leaders choose to stay in the field. Here are our eight recommendations for states:  

Elementary School Principals

  1. Embed early childhood education throughout principal preparation courses. 
  2. Require teaching experience or clinical experience specifically in elementary schools.
  3. Offer ongoing professional learning opportunities on early education. 
  4. Track principal turnover and salaries and use the data to determine how districts can better support leaders.

Pre-K Center Directors

  1. Increase center director qualifications to reflect the research on child development and early learning. 
  2. Increase infrastructure for child care to improve center director well-being and retention. 
  3. Increase opportunities for professional learning for center directors.
  4. Streamline state regulations and eliminate redundancies.

For more detailed recommendations, view the full report here.