Early Childhood

Shedding Light on the ‘Leadership Gap’ in Early-Childhood Programs

By Marva Hinton — June 29, 2017 4 min read
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A new website launched this week focuses on what the organization behind it calls the “leadership gap” in early-childhood education.

The McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership, at National Louis University in Wheeling, Ill., developed the website, which is known as the Leadership Education for Administrators and Directors (L.E.A.D) Early Childhood Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse details things such as the lack of a requirement of a degree to lead family child-care centers or some community-based programs.

The site includes statistics related to the qualifications of early-childhood program leaders who work with children from birth to age 8, as well as state and national profiles. Each state has a score based on how well it supports high standards for program leaders. Researchers looked at early-childhood center directors, family child-care providers, and elementary school principals and found vastly different levels of education and experience in the field.

Teri Talan is the Michael W. Louis Chair of the McCormick Center and the group’s senior policy advisor. Talan said the purpose of the clearinghouse is to identify these differences in qualifications and close the gap in leadership. She also lamented the fact that the focus on the qualifications of early-childhood teachers hadn’t extended to early-childhood administrators.

“We haven’t paid that same kind of attention to what are the qualifications and skill sets and competencies of program leaders in early-childhood settings,” said Talan. “We really are moving to one set of standards, one set of professional expectations for teachers in all settings for young children because all children need really excellent teachers and all teachers really need excellent leaders in their programs to support them and create the kind of organizational conditions that allow the best teaching to take place.”

The clearinghouse examines qualifications related to leaders’ education, professional development, and experience. The researchers behind it use five policy levers to determine the degree to which the nation and states support high standards for program leaders:

  • Administrator qualifications in child care licensing;
  • Administrator credential;
  • Principal licensure;
  • Administrator qualification in QRIS (Quality Rating & Improvement System);
  • Administrator qualifications in state pre-K programs.

The clearinghouse also includes information about early-childhood leadership degree programs and elementary principal degree programs, as well as early-childhood leadership academies.

Talan said going into this project the researchers knew the qualifications to be a licensed child care-center director were lower than those to be an elementary school principal, but they didn’t realize how much lower.

For example, no state requires the leaders of licensed child-care programs to have a bachelor’s degree. In New Jersey, a bachelor’s degree is required only if the program serves 30 or more children.

“That’s just not acceptable in terms of what program leaders need to know and be able to do,” said Talan.

She said one of the most surprising things they discovered during their research was that nationally there are just about the same number of leaders in community-based settings such as child-care centers and Head Start programs as there are elementary school principals.

“Yet, there were 27 times more programs to prepare principals than there were higher education programs to prepare leaders working in community-based settings,” said Talan.

One of the goals of the researchers was to look into the policies that are either supporting or not supporting the development of a more unified standard for the qualifications of early-childhood program leaders. For example, even in states with licensing requirements for child-care programs, many allow several exceptions to the rules about a leader’s qualifications depending on how many children are enrolled.


The clearinghouse calls for a “unifying foundation of administrative qualifications and competencies reflecting a whole leadership approach.” The researchers recommend all early-childhood program/education leaders have at least a bachelor’s degree. They’re also calling on states to keep better records regarding family child-care providers and note that the number of these providers is greater than the total number of early-childhood program directors and elementary school principals.

“I hope that this tool can be used to benchmark whether or not states are making any progress as a whole in improving the policies that address the preparation and ongoing support of program leaders whether they’re working in schools or whether they’re working in centers or in even family child-care homes, because all of those leaders really matter to how children do and whether or not they’re going to be really thriving in the early years,” said Talan.

Graphic: The researchers found vast differences in the levels of education and experience of early childhood program leaders in family child care, community-based programs and elementary schools. Courtesy McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.