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Among the $9 billion in cuts to education spending requested by the Trump administration last week is the elimination of a $2.4 billion funding stream that supports educator quality and professional learning across the country.

Without these dollars, states and districts would lose valuable opportunities to improve the quality of a frequently overlooked section of the workforce: elementary school principals. After teachers, principals have the next-largest impact on student learning.

Many are now familiar with the research showing how much the early years of school can spell the difference between succeeding in school and escaping a life of poverty versus continuing to struggle in the classroom and in the workplace. But few people realize the role school principals play in creating an optimal learning environment in those early grades.

Abbie Lieberman

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Science shows that young children learn more through play, exploration, and student-led activities than through direct instruction and worksheets. But today’s principals often have neither the time to digest those studies nor formal training in what it takes to foster that kind of learning in the classroom.

Even though many elementary school principals are responsible for overseeing pre-K in their schools, only one in five said they felt “well-trained” in early education, according to a recent national survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Last year our team at New America released reports based on a series of focus groups we conducted with elementary school principals to explore their views about and experiences with early grade students, teachers, and classrooms. The focus groups revealed that many principals enter their role with a limited understanding of child development and unfamiliar with what instruction should look like for young learners.

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Even though a significant amount of education (a master’s degree in most states) and training is required to become an elementary school principal, very little of that education focuses on how to teach young children. One Minneapolis principal and former middle school teacher told the focus group he had no experience teaching reading. A principal from San Francisco said that his lack of experience in early education created some challenges in dealing with behavioral issues.

An Orlando principal said that since she had taught fifth grade for many years she didn’t feel as comfortable giving advice to the kindergarten teachers as to fifth-grade teachers.

Laura Bornfreund

Related: What happens to a turnaround high school when transformative principal walks away?

One might argue that a high school principal won’t necessarily have deep knowledge of chemistry, for instance, nor will he or she know how to teach it. And this is true; expecting principals to know the nuances of each grade level and every content area is an unreasonable requisite. So why does it matter for pre-K and the early grades? Research has revealed time and again that the interactions between teachers and their students are crucial to learning in the early years of school.

“We cannot continue to overlook the crucial role of the school principal in helping our youngest learners succeed.”

To help foster these strong interactions, elementary school principals must have a deep understanding of how young children learn and be able to support teachers in providing appropriate instruction and environments for young learners. When principal preparation fails to incorporate early childhood education content and experiences, elementary school principals are left to struggle to become strong leaders for pre-K, kindergarten, and early grade teachers and students on their own. Some do not recognize what they lack; others are not able to acquire the expertise they know they need.

Change is necessary. States and local communities continue to expand public pre-K programs and full-day kindergarten is becoming the norm. With elementary school principals overseeing and supporting these classrooms, it’s time for states to rethink principal preparation to ensure that school leaders are knowledgeable about child development and know the best ways to teach young children. Federal educator professional learning dollars present an opportunity for states to do just that.

As of last year, Illinois was the only state requiring elementary principals to have formal preparation in early childhood education. Multiple states acknowledge pre-K and the early grades in their licensure, but do not actually require aspiring principals to learn any early childhood content.

Related: Why do more than half of principals quit after five years?

Illinois has gone much further than any other state in reforming leader preparation. A 2010 law brought wide reform to the state’s principal preparation system. Illinois brought pre-K into preparation requirements for all principals, regardless of their prior experience. All Illinois principals must also participate in hands-on internships where they are required to engage with instruction at all grade levels, including pre-K. It’s too early to know exactly how these reforms will affect the readiness of budding principals, but other states can learn from Illinois’s steps in the right direction.

In a few states, education leaders have started to try to fix the problem through professional learning opportunities. Programs launched by the state in Minnesota, Maryland, and New Jersey have enabled seasoned principals to deepen their understanding of early learning. Or school districts could opt to send principals to opportunities such as the P-3 Executive Leadership program at the University of Washington where they are engaged with other early childhood leaders in deep learning about early childhood development and strategies to better connect what comes before children enter kindergarten and the early grades of elementary school.

By rethinking both training and development state and school-district leaders can help principals both understand what early learning should look like and how to help teachers teach in they ways that young students learn best. Cuts in federal funding of professional learning will make it even more difficult for them to achieve this.

It’s very difficult for students to catch up if they fall behind in the early grades. We cannot continue to overlook the crucial role of the school principal in helping our youngest learners succeed.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America, a nonprofit nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

Laura Bornfreund is director of early and elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America.

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