Are Child Care Centers Directors and Elementary School Principals Prepared to Lead on Early Literacy?

When it comes to birth-through-age-eight care and education, leadership matters. For child care center directors and elementary school principals, research demonstrates that level of formal education and knowledge of child development impact their students’ early literacy. School leader preparation indicators are included in the NC Pathways to Grade-Level Reading measures of success, including:

  • Percent of birth-through-age-eight early childhood administrators with post-secondary early childhood education, by degree (associate, bachelor’s).
  • Percent of birth-through-age-eight early childhood administrators with early childhood/child development-specific knowledge and competencies.

How prepared are our child care center directors and principals to lead on early literacy?

Recent reports have addressed this question. New America’s Pre-K Leader Policy Scan finds that North Carolina is missing some requirements that could make our elementary school principals more effective as early literacy leaders, including:

  • Principal preparation programs are not required to offer specific coursework around early learning and/or child development.
  • Elementary school principals are not required to have clinical experience in elementary schools during preparation.
  • Elementary principals receive a license for leading PreK-12. There is no credential for a more specific grade span (i.e., PreK-5).
  • Professional learning (such as training, mentoring, or coaching) around early childhood education or PreK–3rd alignment is not offered for elementary principals.

North Carolina does not differ from the rest of the nation on most of these points. A recent survey of elementary school principals found that, even though half of respondents had Pre-K classrooms in their schools, only one in five felt they were well-trained in “instructional methods and developmentally-appropriate perspectives for early education.”

A study out of New Jersey is also relevant to North Carolina’s conversation. Like North Carolina, New Jersey has:

  • A highly-regarded pre-K program
  • Pre-K classrooms in both public and private settings
  • No requirement for early childhood-specific coursework for elementary school principals

The study found that most principal preparation programs in New Jersey did not require specific coursework on child development and early education leadership, including coursework on:

  • Human development and learning (required by only 1 in 4 prep programs)
  • Development of children’s math skills (1 in 4)
  • Children’s literacy skills (1 in 3)
  • Leadership and management of public pre-K programs (half)
  • Programs for children before kindergarten (half)

The New America report also uses state-level data to show that, across the country, standards for early childhood program directors are much lower than those of elementary school principals, even though the requirements for their jobs are similar. The chart below shows some of the discrepancies in North Carolina’s policies and average compensation for the two types of administrators.

Center DirectorsPrincipals
Minimum education requirementNo higher education or specific training is required*Master’s degree
>Prior teaching experience required?NoYes
Formal evaluation required?NoYes
Average salary$49,000$68,500

*NC offers a Center Director credential but it is not required for licensure.

In two areas, NC is an outlier compared with the rest of the nation:

  • Not requiring higher education for center directors. Only six other states have no such requirements.
  • Compensation for both principals and center directors. NC’s average salaries for center directors are slightly below average. Principal salaries are second from the bottom in the nation. (These data are from early 2017. Later that year, the NC General Assembly passed a principal pay raise that, according to BEST NC, should increase NC’s average principal salary to around the national average.)

What can we do about it?

There is a rich conversation happening in North Carolina about principal preparation and compensation. On the heels of legislation raising principal salaries in the state, a recent report by BEST NC points out that North Carolina’s principal pipeline is not robust, partly because principal preparation programs are not necessarily research-informed or well-funded by the state. The report outlines North Carolina’s recent $4.5 million investment in the Transforming Principal Preparation Program (TP3).

This new approach to principal training is now preparing more than 100 hand-picked principals to take on leadership roles in some of the state’s highest need schools, starting in fall of 2018. The program aims to eventually triple in size, creating capacity to train enough principals to fill current vacancies statewide.

BEST NC reports that TP3 incorporates elements into the training that are gleaned from research into what works in school leader preparation, including:

  • Proactive, intentional recruitment efforts
  • The use of cohorts
  • A high bar for entry
  • Rigorous and relevant coursework
  • A full-time, paid residency
  • A focus on authentic partnerships with and preparation for service in high-need schools and districts.

North Carolina State University’s Principal Preparation Candidate program also works to increase the quality of North Carolina’s principal pipeline. To gain admission into one of the program’s regional leadership academies, aspiring principals must show competency in “soft skills” – things like compassion, empathy and kindness – that are essential for the job but can’t necessarily be taught in classes. Unlike many principal preparation programs that accept all applicants, NC State’s program is intentionally selecting candidates that demonstrate they already have these skills.

Recommendations from the New Jersey report, also relevant for North Carolina, include:

  • Require early childhood education-specific education or experience.
  • Develop and expand course content in principal certification programs that focuses on pre-K.
  • Provide more ongoing professional development for principals.
  • Evaluate principals on early childhood competencies and standards.

Preparation for third grade reading proficiency doesn’t start at elementary school, but at birth. The current conversation in North Carolina around improving the quality of principal preparation and compensation is essential, but it isn’t enough. We also need to be talking about standards, training and compensation for child care center directors and leaders of child care family homes, who are responsible for developing emergent literacy in our children from birth through age five.

One place to start might be offering joint professional development for elementary school principals and center directors, like a handful of other states have done. We ask our birth-to-five directors and K-5 principals to do a similar job – develop teachers, support them in their instructional roles, and foster early learning and literacy. We should give them all the tools to do it well.