While teachers and their students are beginning to soak up some much-earned summer vacation, officials in most state departments of education are busy finalizing their plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and deciding what to do with their newfound flexibility.
As my colleagues at New America have pointed out, ESSA presents many opportunities for states to better support early learning, but it gives them discretion to decide whether to prioritize these crucial years. Through Title II, which supports preparation and training of educators and leaders, states have an opportunity to significantly improve the quality of pre-K programs by focusing on an often overlooked group of professionals: elementary school principals.
A majority of elementary school principals now oversee pre-K classrooms in their buildings. Yet a majority report that they don’t feel confident in their knowledge of early education. This is problematic because research shows that after teachers, these school leaders are the greatest in-school factor impacting student achievement. Failing to train and support principals as early-learning leaders is a missed opportunity because it can inhibit their ability to support early-grade teachers.
A recently released 50-state scan of policies related to pre-K leaders from New America found that states are doing little to address this. State standards around elementary school principals’ pre-service qualifications and professional learning opportunities rarely reflect the important role they play in providing high-quality learning environments for younger children.
Even though 40 states require a master’s degree or higher to become an elementary school principal, very little of that education addresses how young children learn. In fact, New America found that only nine states explicitly require elementary school principals to have coursework in early learning or child development. Although most states require clinical experiences such as internships, assistant principalships, and mentorships as part of principal preparation, only 10 states require that they be specific to elementary schools.
Principals need to have a strong understanding of early learning and child development to be able to know if teachers are providing appropriate instruction. A principal unfamiliar with pre-K and the early grades might not realize that it is appropriate to walk into a classroom and see young children learning through play and student-led activities as opposed to quietly sitting at desks completing worksheets. A series of focus groups New America conducted with elementary school principals a few years ago revealed that this situation is all too common.
One might argue that elementary school principals do not need formal education on child development and early learning because they have already mastered those topics during their time teaching. But New America found that only three states — Alaska, Nebraska, and South Carolina — require elementary school principals to have teaching experience specifically in the elementary grades, let alone in the early years. Without prior teaching or clinical experience in elementary schools, it’s very possible that a principal can be put in charge of an elementary school without ever having set foot in one (apart from their own schooling, of course).
“Having that experience of working with little ones is invaluable,” Matt Fridley, principal of Mark Twain Elementary and a former first-grade teacher in Rolla, Missouri, explained in an interview. “If you want to be an administrator, you need to understand the grade span that you’ll be working with.”
It takes years for new principals to settle into their roles, Fridley said.
“You don’t build capacity in a building when you are busy building the capacity of the principal,” he said, adding that he would “love to see the shift in the requirements for administrators so that they have previously taught in that grade-level span.”
States should use flexibility under ESSA to address gaps in existing principals’ knowledge and ensure that new principals enter their roles prepared to lead young students and their teachers. State officials can require programs to offer coursework on early education and child development or, even better, embed early childhood education throughout preparation courses.
States can look to Illinois as an example. Illinois passed a law in 2010 reforming the state’s principal preparation system and incorporating pre-K throughout the requirements for all principals. Now all aspiring Illinois principals learn about early education in the classroom and participate in hands-on internships at all grade spans, including pre-K. If implemented well, these kinds of policies help ensure that elementary school principals start their jobs with the competencies needed to be strong instructional leaders for early childhood educators.
With Title II ESSA dollars, states can also offer ongoing professional learning opportunities in early education to reach the thousands of principals already in the field. New America found that only a handful of states are providing this type of professional learning, and the efforts were usually spurred by federal Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge funds. Title II dollars could be used to sustain and build on these efforts — that is, if they are not eliminated as the Trump administration has threatened to do in its 2018 budget proposal.
Child development research over the past few decades has revealed a lot about how young children learn, but training and development for principals in nearly all states has not caught up. States have many options when it comes to allocating their ESSA dollars, but early learning should remain a priority.
Ample research shows that investing in high-quality pre-K and the early grades can change children’s education trajectories, so it’s important that educators get these years right. When policymakers and researchers talk about the importance of early education, the role of elementary school principals needs to be part of the conversation.