The ABCs of Early Childhood Education Funding
Gail Connelly, NAESP Executive Director
, Volume 33, Number 6, February 2010

Nearly every education benchmark for students—from performing at grade level to staying in school—is related to school readiness. Elementary principals have known for years what the research now confirms: Quality early childhood education programs get children ready for formal education and lay the foundation for learning in later years.

Not only do principals fully understand the critical importance of early childhood learning, they play a pivotal role in helping their communities and families understand it too. Working in partnership with preschool programs, families, and community partners, visionary principals are creating innovative and aligned pre-K-3 education programs for low-income children. Successful alignment includes dovetailing standards and curricula so a student’s progress in one year leads seamlessly to the next year, and it involves integrating quality early childhood learning with the principal’s vision for school culture. Most important, it rests on three simple yet powerful tenets:

  1. All students can learn; 
  2. Educators should have high expectations for students; and 
  3. The entire school community is responsible for nurturing students’ academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being.

To meet these lofty but achievable goals, principals must have the knowledge, resources, and tools they need to support early childhood programs and to facilitate children’s successful transition to the elementary grades. Simply put, principals need ongoing professional development that is grounded in early childhood development, age-appropriate teaching practices, multiple measures of assessment that inform instruction, and cross-teaming opportunities that support a seamless continuum of learning.

Closing the Gap
Unfortunately, there are significant gaps in current principal preparation programs in these areas. What’s more, because many school systems lack sufficient resources to help guide principals through the standards and practice of leading early childhood learning communities, the gap widens—just when our kids need principals who have access to the best practices, the most up-to-date research, and current pedagogy.

For 20 years, NAESP has been working to close this gap. We’ve taken the lead in developing standards to strengthen principal preparation and practice, including those for early learning. In 2005, we issued the landmark publication Leading Early Childhood Learning Communities, which features the revealing findings and best practices on the intersection between early learning and success in the elementary grades.

This body of knowledge provides comprehensive, research-based standards for what principals must know and be able to do. It features guidance on the design and implementation of pre-K-3 aligned systems, helps principals rethink the connection between community-based early childhood programs and elementary schools, and provides a blueprint for developing the skills principals need to influence early learning, whether it occurs in community programs or school-based programs.

What’s more, we’re currently building on this work as we launch a long-range initiative, Transforming Early Learning in Grades Pre-K-3, partially funded with a generous grant from the ING Foundation. This work, which will be informed by a special task force of principals, researchers, and policy experts, will focus on the latest research and best practices for early childhood education. We’ll have more to share as this project evolves.

A Comprehensive Skill Set
Given the critical nature of learning in the first five years of a child’s life, elementary principals must have the knowledge and skills they need to ramp up the quality of early learning programs in their schools. Absent these quality programs, the academic future of too many kids ends before it really gets started.

The goal that every child will graduate from high school as college- or career-ready is a noble one, and we wholeheartedly support it. But here’s the rub—and the research couldn’t be more clear on this point: Children who enter school behind their peers typically stay behind; many eventually drop out of school. Principals who are steeped in early childhood development and have the skills to lead community- and school-based early learning programs can and do even the odds for such children. No other educator is in a better position to make sure that all students have the best chance for success in school and life.

And so, as the U.S. Department of Education and members of Congress consider the renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NAESP strongly urges greater federal investment in early learning professional development opportunities for principals. At a minimum, the reauthorization must draw upon NAESP’s standards for leading early learning communities to guide professional development for elementary principals. Our children deserve no less.

This column is based on remarks Connelly gave to senior officials on Jan. 29 at the U.S. Department of Education to advocate on behalf of full funding for principals’ professional development in early childhood education. Copyright © National Association of Elementary School Principals. No part of the articles in NAESP magazines, newsletters, or Web site may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. For more information, read NAESP's reprint policy.