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A preschool student writes in class.
A preschool student writes in class. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Principals lack the experience and expertise in early childhood education that is needed as pre-K programs expand in public elementary schools and that could inhibit their ability to manage and support pre-K teachers, according to a new report.

Early Childhood Preparation for School Leaders: Lessons from New Jersey Principal Certification Programs” by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, found that principal familiarity with pre-K is a problem nationwide but researchers zeroed in on New Jersey, which has a highly regarded public pre-K program but no requirement for principals to have college-level coursework in early childhood education.

A 2015 report found only one in five principals nationally who were supervising a pre-K program at their school felt well-trained in early childhood concepts.  A 2017 report found most principal certification programs “do not provide comprehensive instruction focused on children prior to kindergarten.”

In New Jersey, during the 2015-16 school year, 30,000 children started a pre-K program in a state elementary school.

Twenty-three institutions of higher education offer principal certification programs in the state, and 18 were included in the study. Among those programs, only 23 percent required principal candidates to learn about the development of children’s and adolescents’ math skills. Only 39 percent required coursework on children’s and adolescents’ literacy skills. More than 75 percent of programs said they do not offer or do not require human development and learning from candidates in principal certification programs. These are topics that help educators understand “the course of typical and atypical development as well as age appropriate expectations for learning and behavior,” according to the report. Without this knowledge, adults may label normal behaviors as “problematic,” which leads to unnecessary discipline.

Only 56 percent of programs required course content on leadership and management of public pre-K programs and about half of the principal certification programs reported having insufficient course content focused on programs for children before kindergarten.

To improve principal knowledge and preparation, the authors of the report recommended that the state require early childhood education-specific education or experience before granting certification, develop and expand course content at principal certification programs that focuses on pre-K, and provide more ongoing professional development for principals. The report also suggests that principals are evaluated on early childhood competencies and standards.

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  1. An alternative would be to hire a separate principal who does have Pre-K through ____ on their credential, plus training concentrated in that area. There are special needs amongst pre-k’s and special laws about buildings, aides, and diapers often need to be changed. It’s an entirely different field and the principal is usually already overloaded. As a former principal and Assistant Principal, I was not prepared when a building for pre-k’s arrived on my campus. Although my credential does have pre-K on it, I did not have any courses specific to these students, let alone special needs pre-k’ers. And when I pointed out some changes I knew had to be made, my suggestions were not well received.

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