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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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NAESP: Principals Need to Know about Early Childhood Development

Published:  March 7, 2013

The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has released new policy proposals to better recruit, prepare and build the capacity of effective principals. One of these new proposals is to strengthen elementary principals’ knowledge about early childhood development, which is an important step in helping principals know what to expect when they walk into kindergarten through third grade classrooms.

Fortunately, some states are already offering good examples of how to do this. Take New Jersey: A recent case study from the Advocates for the Children of New Jersey spotlights a development program to build principals’ knowledge of early childhood development. The case study noted that many principals have never taught in kindergarten through second grade classrooms. The program helps principals understand what learning should look like in early childhood classrooms as well as encourage principals to communicate with the early childhood programs that feed into their school.

Building principals’ knowledge  about early childhood development will also go a long way toward helping them to make sure effective teachers with a deep understanding of how young children learn are assigned to K-3 classrooms. In a 2012 paper from Duke University researchers discussed that some principals assign the most effective teachers to the later elementary grades. Third through fifth grades are the grades where students take the state achievement tests that are used to measure a schools “adequate yearly progress” – whether a school is succeeding or failing in educating all of the students in the school – a requirement of the No Child Left Behind Act. While conducting research for “Getting in Sync,” I heard many stories of principals moving weak teachers to an early elementary grade from an upper elementary grade because they wanted stronger teachers in grades that are the focus of state tests and school accountability.

A more effective strategy would be to assign highly effective teachers to kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms as well so young children receive high-quality instruction during those years that builds on their experiences in preschool programs. Principal professional development is a key piece of fixing this problem.

The NAESP recommends amending Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), known as No Child Left Behind, to provide funding for professional development in early childhood development and preK-3rd alignment. Specifically, the NAESP would like to see federal funds that would support principals in:

  • Learning more about early childhood development to improve school readiness for students;
  • Gaining knowledge about appropriate early childhood settings PreK-3rd; and
  • Working with local early education providers and families to smooth children’s transitions into school by ensuring that learning in the early grades builds on children’s learning and development in their preschool experiences.

The NAESP also makes known its support of the Continuum of Learning Act, which was introduced in 2011 by then-Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI). (In 2012, Hirono was elected to the U.S. Senate.) Read more about the Act here. Among other things, it would require school districts to report how Title I funds are being used to support children birth to 5. Right now, there is little known about how, if at all, elementary schools or school districts are using their Title I funds to help close the early achievement gap among children from families in poverty.

It’s great to see that the NAESP is so focused on elementary school principals having a deep understanding of early childhood development and learning. This knowledge would help them to better hire and place the right teachers in kindergarten through third grade classrooms, more appropriately conduct observations of those teachers, and to set realistic expectations for young children when it comes to behavior and learning.

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