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Supporting principals as early learning leaders

What do third grade reading and principal pay have to do with one another?

A lot.

And as the General Assembly moves forward with recommendations to ensure that the state’s pay scale attracts and retains the best school leaders, the connection with third grade reading should be an important driver of the policies they adopt.

At any grade level, leadership matters. After teachers, principals have the largest in-school impact on student achievement. Principals alone can account for 25 percent of a school’s impact on student learning.1 A 2013 study published in Education Next found that highly effective principals raise the achievement of a typical student in their schools by between two and seven months of learning in a single school year; ineffective principals lower achievement by the same amount.2

Yet, when it comes to early learning and literacy, few principals feel prepared. Only one in five who said that they were responsible for prekindergarten felt well-trained in instructional methods for early education, according to a survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals.3

That’s not a surprise. Few states require principals to have any child development preparation. In North Carolina, principals do not have to have any preparation in early language and literacy development, and the state does not include early childhood education content and experiences as part of its principal licensure process.4

Prepared or not, elementary school principals are responsible for:

Overseeing the school’s implementation of Read to Achieve, including its goal to support each child reading on grade-level by the end of third grade;

Serving as the school’s instructional leader for all teachers, including developmentally-appropriate instruction and assessment for the early grades and prekindergarten;

Staffing the early grades;

Supporting the school’s Kindergarten Entry Assessment; and

Overseeing prekindergarten classrooms in North Carolina schools.

We expect a lot of principals without ensuring that they have the support needed to be effective early education leaders. To understand why, you need to be familiar with a core concept of child development:

Brains are built, not born.

The brain is one of the only organs not fully developed at birth. Brain scientists have discovered that during children’s earliest years, their experiences are built into their bodies – shaping the brain’s architecture and impacting how biological systems develop. To form a strong foundation for learning, children need good health, supportive and supported families and communities and high quality birth-to-eight learning environments – schools led by principals who have been supported and prepared to understand how young children develop and what they need to succeed.

The early years are so defining that by the time a child turns eight, his or her third grade reading outcomes can predict future academic achievement and career success. The General Assembly recognized the importance of these years and third grade reading when it passed Read to Achieve as part of the Excellent Public Schools Act. Under this law, students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade receive additional help to make sure that they can read well enough to do fourth-grade work.

So how does pay come into the picture?

First, principals make more money in schools with larger populations. In essence, pay is tied to the number of teachers a principal supervises. (Principal pay is partially calculated based on a school’s average daily attendance rate, which is used to calculate the number of teachers a school is funded to hire.) For those looking to advance in their career and increase pay, the only option is to move from a small elementary school to a larger middle or high school. In other words, the current pay schedule has an incentive for strong leaders to leave elementary schools.

Second, unlike teachers who must be certified for the subject or grade level they will teach, principals in North Carolina are certified to hold the position at any level of school. And they do not need any early childhood education preparation before leading an elementary school. Obtaining these skills is not recognized or rewarded by the current system.

The National Association of Elementary School Principals has long recognized that “closing the academic and opportunity gap for children requires improving the knowledge and practice of principals and fully engaging families.”5 The organization launched Leading Early Childhood Learning Communities in 2005, and its Task Force report, Building and Supporting an Aligned System, outlines comprehensive steps to support school leaders in transforming early learning in schools. Among their ten recommendations is that policymakers should develop a pay schedule that“adequately compensates the full range of teachers and leaders serving students ages 3 through 8.”6

The General Assembly’s work to review principal pay to attract and retain strong leaders is an opportunity to begin to incentivize and recognize principals’ contributions to the state’s priorities, starting with third grade reading proficiency.

Perhaps it will open the door to a more comprehensive effort to supporting our school leaders as they work to help our youngest learners succeed.


Show 6 footnotes

  1. Robert J. Marzano, R.J., et al., “School Leadership That Works: From Research to Results,” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA, 2005.
  2.  Branch, G. F., et al., “Leadership Matters,” Education Next, 13(1), 2013, pp. 62-69.
  3.  “New Principals: A Data Snapshot,” Education Week, August 18, 2015.
  4. Early Education Preparation for Principals: A Look at the Leading States,” New America, retrieved January 15, 2017.
  5. Leading Pre-K-3 Learning Communities,” National Association of Elementary School Principals, 2014.
  6. Building and Supporting an Aligned System: A Vision for Transforming Education Access Across the Pre-K-Grade Three Years,” NAESP Foundation, 2011.
Tracy Zimmerman

Tracy Zimmerman is the executive director of the NC Early Childhood Foundation.