Since the 1970s, an important line of research has shown that children and youth from low-income families can succeed at high academic levels in public schools if they are given the right support. The research on two of those supports is now so compelling that it would be difficult to find anyone who would dispute them: high-quality early childhood education and high-quality school leadership are powerful levers for improving student learning. And they are even more powerful if they are implemented together, instead of separately.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago argues that if we want to spend our educational dollars more effectively, early childhood programs are the place to spend it. However, we also know that placing children in early childhood programs will not by itself ensure learning: It’s the quality of the learning experience that matters most.
If we want strong early childhood education programs, we have to prepare leaders for elementary schools and early childhood programs who understand the complexities of “Organizing Schools for Improvement,” the title of the influential book authored by Tony Bryk’s team at the University of Chicago (Bryk is now president of Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching).
It is no secret that high quality school leaders hire and retain the right teachers, develop their ability to succeed with a school’s particular population, and work with families to support student success. This is as true for early childhood classrooms as it is for high school classrooms.
Nationwide, however, two of the most important ships in the educational fleet are manned by crews that don’t often communicate with each other. Early childhood education and leadership faculty teach in separate university departments, they have separate journals and professional organizations, and it is rare for a leadership conference to address issues in early childhood education or vice versa. Most school principals have little or no early childhood education background, and just as little leadership preparation for early childhood programs.
Fortunately, notable exceptions point the way to change: the University of Washington and University of Connecticut are invested in ambitious programs in P-3 Leadership development. And, in Illinois, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, Erikson Institute, Illinois State University and the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Education Leadership have been pioneering innovative leadership practices for improving teacher learning in pre-school settings.
In fact, the lessons to be learned from Chicago Public Schools are important. In the third-largest district in the nation, systemic change began with principal preparation partnerships that prepared all candidates to lead pre-K through 12 classrooms. The Chicago story includes state legislation to support aggressive district policies in preparing, selecting and supporting new principals.
After more than a decade, the two largest principal preparation providers — New Leaders and University of Illinois Chicago, respectively — have produced more than 300 new principals for Chicago Public Schools; and Illinois became the first state to replace its general school administrator certificate with a P-12 Principal Endorsement.
The results have been impressive. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2001, Chicago Public Schools has posted the highest elementary school learning gains among the 55 largest school districts in Illinois in reading and mathematics. Moreover, actual achievement in Chicago is now about the same as or higher than nearly 50 percent of all school districts statewide, up from just 3 percent of districts in 2001. That is according to a study led by Paul Zavitkovsky of the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Urban Education Leadership.
What’s more, third-grade reading scores in Chicago now eclipse those for the rest of the state for each of the three major demographic groups. This is particularly important because third-grade reading scores are an accurate predicator of eighth-grade reading levels — which in turn correlate highly with high school graduation.
These examples remind us that other districts and states have considerable power to work with higher education to produce school leaders who significantly improve student learning in schools as a rule, rather than as an exception to the rule. Preparing K-12 principals who can lead early childhood programs is a cost-effective place to start.