05/17/2011 05:55 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

Attacking the Achievement Gap: Principals in Action

On the subject of education reform, everyone has some advice for the United States. And in the wake of our 15-year-olds' lousy PISA scores, the choir has grown louder.

Since the results of the international survey were released last December -- you remember, our teens were bested by their peers in Finland and Shanghai -- brow-beating has been the order of the day. But the latest voice, that of PISA Director, Andreas Schleicher strikes an interesting note. While he mentions not a word about universal high-quality early childhood education -- a major oversight, to say the least -- he emphasizes the significant role of principals in education reform.

Down at the end of the education spectrum where the achievement gap is born, principals are increasingly moving toward the front lines of systems change. Principal magazine has devoted its entire May/June issue to early childhood , the byproduct of growing efforts to link early childhood education with the primary years of schooling. "Pre-K-3rd," as this education reform strategy is known in the field, has gained great traction in recent years, with school districts and communities across the country -- from Washington State to New Jersey -- working to provide consistency in children's experiences and align standards, curriculum, instructional strategies, and professional development across these years.

The rationale for the PreK-3rd movement is clear: Studies show that at least half of the educational achievement gap between poor children and their more advantaged peers is evident in the kindergarten classroom. Children from low-income families often start school with limited language skills as well as social and emotional problems that inhibit learning. And those who start behind are much more likely to stay behind. We know that children, especially those who are less advantaged, can reap enormous benefits from high-quality early childhood education, including school readiness. But these effects cannot be sustained, nor will students be reading and doing math at grade level by age eight, if the schools are not ready for them.

Enter, the principals, who, according to last month's policy brief, PreK-3rd: Principals as Crucial Instructional Leaders, account for 25 percent of a school's impact on student learning. The impact rises, research shows, to 60 percent, if you add teacher and principal quality together. Pretty heady data, indeed. But apparently, while principals may be administratively savvy, strong instructional leadership is at a premium.

In an age of increasing accountability, principals, like educators at all levels, are under tremendous pressure, driven to put out fires where they erupt -- in the later grades, when students are tested. With the heat on, school leaders are often myopic, unable to embrace a more expansive, holistic view of teaching and learning. What's more, their own preparation fails to equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to be effective instructional leaders. They're especially lacking in knowledge of early childhood development and education, and woefully behind the curve on the social-emotional context of learning -- challenges that Pre-K-3rd initiatives are confronting head on.

In New Jersey, the home of Abbott vs. Burke, a landmark class-action suit on behalf of 300,000 school-age and 60,000 preschoolers to ensure educational equity, a comprehensive early learning professional development program for school district administrators has taken root. One hundred and eighty district administrators, 35 percent of whom were building principals, enrolled in the Pre-K-3rd Leadership Training Series, leaving a significant number of their colleagues behind on a waiting list. Four days of sessions, in four different locations across the state, were held over a five-month period. And course content was an early educator's dream: Defining Your Role as an Early Childhood Leader, Responsive Program/Professional Development, Whole Child Learning Standards, Family and Community Engagement, along with Broadening and Articulating our PreK-3rd Vision: The Nine Essential Components.

A promising paradigm, indeed -- whose value is best expressed, perhaps, in the words of one Northern New Jersey school principal:

Early childhood is where it all begins. We have been charged with the most difficult challenge: teaching our students to read and love learning.