Being a strong early childhood education leader does not necessarily come naturally; it takes specialized knowledge and skills that need to be developed over time. Teaching prospective elementary school principals and center directors about early learning and providing them with practical experiences in pre-K settings through their preparation programs ensures that they are ready to be strong early education leaders. Preparation programs are usually designed based on what states require for licensure. While leaders can always learn valuable lessons through on-the-job experience, there is a basic level of knowledge that they should attain before managing an early education program. State-level policies governing early education leaders should prepare them to enter elementary schools and child care centers ready to support young students and their teachers.
Minimum Education Requirement
There is limited research regarding the appropriate amount of postsecondary coursework for principals, but all states agree that being an elementary school principal requires formal training beyond a bachelor’s degree. It is not whether a principal’s training culminates in a master’s degree that necessarily matters, but whether he or she is able to gain the specialized knowledge and skills needed to lead a school as both an administrative and instructional leader. More coursework might mean more opportunities to master the competencies laid out in Transforming the Workforce, but it is the relevance and quality of the learning opportunities in principal preparation that matter most.New America’s Finding: Six states and Washington, DC require principals to have at least a bachelor’s degree to be eligible for licensure. Four states require coursework beyond a bachelor’s degree to obtain a principal license. Forty states require elementary school principals to have a master’s degree or higher.
License Grade Span
Some research suggests that teacher preparation programs covering a broad grade span are less likely to prepare teachers well to work with any specific age group. The same logic can be applied to principal preparation programs, which are largely designed based on state principal licensing requirements. In theory, the difference between an elementary-specific license and a secondary school license or a broad PreK–12 license is the opportunity to focus on content pertinent to working with elementary school students and teachers.
Running an elementary school is different than running a middle school or high school; instruction should look very different for young children, who learn best through play and limited whole group instruction. Broad licenses may not give principals the opportunity to focus on the unique challenges and opportunities associated with the development of young learners, a group that spans from pre-K through third grade.
While both the K–12 and PreK–12 licenses are extremely broad, the PreK–12 license, by including the word segment “pre” somewhere in the label, does acknowledge the fact that elementary principals oversee pre-K classrooms. However, a 2014 review of principal licensure standards by the Center for Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes found that, “although many states include pre-K in the scope of principal licensure (PreK–12, for example) the extent to which that involves any childhood content or experience is varied, but generally extremely limited.”New America’s Finding: Most states offer only a general K–12 principal license or PreK–12 principal license. Twelve states offer a specific elementary principal license. Five of these twelve states offer both an elementary-specific license and a broader K-12 or PreK-12 license for principals.
While level of education and the span of licensure can both impact the opportunity for principals to receive early learning content, these policies are moot if early childhood education is not part of the curriculum. Programs in many states may offer specific coursework on these topics or incorporate them into other classes even if it is not specifically required by law.New America’s Finding: Only nine states reported that they explicitly require principals to have coursework in early learning and/or child development. Thirty-six states and Washington, DC reported that they do not. New America does not have data on the remaining states.
Teaching Experience Requirement
Since a critical part of being a principal is functioning as an instructional leader, it is helpful for principals to have had teaching experience of their own. This experience not only improves their ability and confidence to guide teachers, but also gives their opinions credibility with the teachers they are leading. Elementary school principals should have elementary teaching experience. Ideally, this would include some experience in the upper and lower elementary years. Principals often feel most comfortable giving teachers feedback in the grades that they are most familiar with.New America’s Finding: Thirty-eight states and Washington, DC require elementary principals to have teaching experience. Of the states that require teaching experience, only Alaska, Nebraska, and South Carolina require that it be in the elementary grades. Of the 12 states that do not specifically require teaching experience, the majority do require experience working in a school either in an administrative capacity or with students, as a counselor, for example. The vast majority of states require principals to have between two and four years of experience teaching or working in a school.
Clinical Experience Requirement
A significant body of research suggests that strong principal preparation programs must couple coursework with meaningful clinical experiences, such as internships, assistant principalships, and mentorships. According to the Wallace Foundation, university representatives “ranked clinical practice as the top (tied with competency frameworks) essential element for effective principal preparation” in a recent survey. It is crucial that aspiring elementary school principals, especially those who never taught young children, get out of the college classroom and have field experiences in elementary school. They need to see first-hand what high-quality instruction looks like in pre-K. Regardless of prior teaching experience, all aspiring elementary school principals can benefit from exposure to real-life leadership situations that enhance their ability to effectively run an elementary school.New America’s Finding: Most states do require clinical experiences, but they do not need to be specific to elementary schools. Only ten states reported that they require elementary school principals to have clinical experiences specifically in elementary schools: Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Virginia, Utah, and Wyoming.
Transforming the Workforce recommends that all early childhood lead teachers and leaders, center directors included, earn at least a bachelor’s degree with specialized training in the field. The qualification requirements for center directors are all over the map and are usually far less than what experts recommend. Most state licensing standards offer multiple paths for directors to meet the qualifications through a combination of the following: formal education, clock hours in early childhood education, clock hours in administration, years of work experience in child care, and credentials or certificates.
Low educational requirements make it difficult for aspiring center directors to gain the knowledge they need to be effective instructional and operational leaders. Center directors need to know the basics of running a business because they are often in charge of an independent program that is not part of a school district. It is equally important that they have a strong understanding of child development and early learning, since they are leading staff who often have minimal education and training in this area. These topics are not covered with a typical high school diploma.
New America’s Findings: Because of the complicated nature of these policies, our scan captured the minimal education level that a center director must have. Seven states do not require center directors to have any formal higher education or training. Twelve states require at least some college coursework and seven states require an associate’s degree. Currently only New Jersey, Vermont, and Washington, DC require center directors to have a bachelor’s degree for licensure. These data reflect the education requirements for large child care centers, as some states have varying requirements based on the size of the center.
Prior Child Care Experience Requirement
The qualifications for center directors laid out in state program licensing standards are usually based on a combination of education, clock hours, years of work experience, and credentials or certificates. The amount of education required and the amount of work experience required are usually inversely related.
New America’s Finding: Twenty-seven states allow people to become center directors without any work experience in child care if they have enough formal education. Our scan included the range of work experience required to be a center director in each state to better illustrate the complicated nature of the requirements. This information is available on the individual state pages. Again, these data reflect the work requirements for large child care centers, as some states have varying requirements based on the size of the center.
Center Director Credential
States can also encourage center directors to enhance their knowledge and skills by offering or requiring director credentials. According to the McCormick Center, “an administrator credential identifies what an effective director of an early childhood program needs to know and be able to do. Achieving an administrator credential is linked to more effective administrative practices in community-based early childhood programs.” While these credentials are often tied to program licensing requirements or go above and beyond licensing requirements, they vary significantly between states. The ability of these credentials to improve practice largely depends on specific requirements. More information on the specifics in each state credential can be found in the McCormick Center’s L.E.A.D. Early Childhood Clearinghouse.
New America’s Finding: Thirty states and Washington, DC offer director credentials for early childhood leaders. Only four of those states require that center directors obtain this credential for licensing.
Principals are held to significantly higher education and training standards than center directors. Most states require principals to have a master’s degree, prior teaching experience, and clinical experience through their preparation programs. However, most state laws do not emphasize the unique knowledge and skills principals need to lead schools with younger children. State policies related to child care center directors are not as clear cut or consistent as those for principal preparation. Licensed child care centers must follow state licensing standards, which tend to focus more on basic health and safety standards in child care than on teaching and learning. As a result, center directors in most states are only expected to have minimal education and training. However, the education and training required that is outlined in licensing standards are usually focused on early childhood education, child development, and administration. Some child care centers are subject to other regulations that place a greater emphasis on quality, such as Head Start standards, national accreditation standards, or state QRIS.