School & District Management What the Research Says

Principals Matter for Preschools, But Studies Show They Lack Training

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 07, 2022 3 min read
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Nearly 6 in 10 public primary school principals lead at least one prekindergarten grade, but new research suggests training and support for integrating early-childhood and elementary education tends to be thin for administrators.

In forthcoming research, Michael Little, an assistant professor of education and public policy at North Carolina State University, surveyed a representative pool of 520 head and assistant principals in that state who administered at least one age level of pre-kindergarten in their schools. Nearly 80 percent of the principals said they considered it a “very good idea” to house preschool programs in the elementary school, and about 75 percent believed the programs should be integrated academically with other grades in the school.

However, fewer than half of the principals said they were familiar with standards for early learning in the state, and a little more than a third said they regularly included pre-K teachers in professional learning communities in their schools. About 45 percent of the principals said they only visited their schools’ pre-K programs once or twice a week.

Little found that children whose principals had taken early-childhood leadership courses as part of their preservice training had higher kindergarten math and literacy performance levels than those for students of principals who hadn’t had such training. The average student whose principal had actually taught in early-childhood education before becoming administrators had academic performance that was about 17 percentile points higher than the average for a student whose school leader didn’t have early-childhood experience.

However, Little found in prior research that only 5 percent of principal-preparation programs require a course on early-childhood education, and only 20 percent even covered the subject in other courses.

“That’s a big problem,” he said.

“When that [pre-K] program is located in an elementary school building, the principal can shape the conditions, what that program looks like, how it falls on the academic versus developmental debate,” Little said. “They can also set conditions for vertical alignment. And so principals do have a role to play in shaping pre-K effectiveness.”

Principal leadership has become particularly urgent since the pandemic, according to Gracie Branch, the associate executive director for professional learning at the National Association of Elementary School Principals. Pandemic disruptions have led to both lower school readiness for incoming preschool and kindergarten students and slower academic progress for students in older grades, which has put more pressure on principals to increase academic interventions.

“Content is critically important and we know that, but we really want to make sure we incorporate the art and play, because that’s such a big part of early childhood,” Branch said. “When you think of early childhood, you want it to be fun and joyful and uplifting.”

Principals who have had experience as early-childhood educators, Little noted, are more likely to support play-based learning and other developmentally appropriate practices in early grades, as opposed to using worksheets or other didactic teaching approaches.

And more child-friendly practices in early grades can boost academic gains. For example, in a separate forthcoming study previewed at a recent meeting last month of the Society for Research in Education Effectiveness, University of Virginia researchers observed more than 1,500 mostly low-income students across 117 pre-K classrooms and 289 kindergarten classrooms. They found 63 percent of the children experienced significantly more direct instruction in literacy and 76 percent more math instruction in kindergarten compared to pre-K. But 60 percent of students also had significantly fewer individual interactions with their teachers than they did the year before, and the drop in one-on-one teacher-student interactions was associated with lower performance in letter-word identification, applied math problems, and math concept understanding in kindergarten.

Boston public schools, in contrast, developed a vertically aligned curriculum for its elementary schools by starting with skills needed at the preschool grades and building upon that foundation at each of the next highergrades. “They didn’t say, ‘I’m gonna use my math and reading 3rd grade test scores as the base and work my way backwards,’” Little said. “And they’re showing some compelling results. Principals are key in determining whether joining [pre-K to elementary grades] is a positive thing.”

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