Of all the various hats that a principal wears, perhaps none is more important than that of instructional leader. As emphasis on school accountability has grown, expectations for principals have shifted from management functions, such as making sure the buses run on time, toward visiting classrooms and providing real-time feedback on teacher instruction.
Along with this emphasis on principals as instructional leader, comes a concern from many in the early education field about whether principals have the knowledge and skills they need to provide quality feedback to teachers of students in pre-K, kindergarten, and the first, second, and third grade. A 2014 report from the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) called for more training and professional development for principals to ensure that they’re knowledgeable about the learning needs of their students in these early grades. The report identified eight areas for policy action, including the need for increased state investment in principal preparation programs to help new principals understand how to create a learning continuum from PreK-3rd grade.
And just this month, new evidence emerged from NAESP that shows many new elementary school principals don’t feel confident in their knowledge of early education. Last year, the NAESP polled a group of about 1,100 first and second-year principals from across the country on a variety of topics. Some of the poll results were unsurprising: 85 percent of the principals, for instance, reported high stress associated with their job. But consider this: despite the fact that 53 percent of the principals who responded to the survey said they had pre-K programs in their schools, only one in five felt well-trained in instructional methods for early education. In other words, many principals may not feel equipped to give specific feedback to help PreK-3rd grade teachers improve their instruction. This finding reflects comments made by elementary school principals in a series of focus groups that New America held in five cities earlier this year. (Stay tuned for more on our focus group findings in the coming months.)
As someone who taught kindergarten for four years, I know that this lack of principal knowledge can be a major problem. While I was lucky enough to teach in a school that had a strong early education focus and administrators well-versed in the learning needs of young children, many of my teaching colleagues were not so fortunate. A fellow teacher shared with me the frustration she felt when her principal walked into her classroom without a sophisticated understanding of what a well-run early childhood classroom looks and sounds like. This teacher worked long hours to create developmentally-appropriate learning centers for her students, only to be asked by her principal why students were “playing” instead of receiving the traditional whole-group academic instruction more commonly associated with 1st-5th grade. PreK-3rd grade teachers need knowledgeable principals who not only get the logic behind why students are spending time building with blocks or playing dress-up in a dramatic play area, but who also encourage teachers to teach in the ways that young children learn best.