School & District Management From Our Research Center

Principal Salaries: The Gap Between Expectation and Reality

By Olina Banerji — May 20, 2024 4 min read
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Principals have one of the toughest jobs in education, and how much they’re paid has an impact on their motivation and capacity to carry on.

But a recent survey conducted by the EdWeek Research Center reveals a worrying fact for school districts: There’s a gap between what principals and assistant principals desire as compensation, and what they’re currently paid.

It amounts to a gap of $23,500 for principals, and $20,000 for assistant principals.

This gap in expectation and reality, for school leaders, could impact the longevity of their careers. Thirty percent of the 592 school leaders who responded to the survey indicated that their compensation wasn’t fair and made them want to leave their current jobs. Almost an equal share—27 percent—said that while they also didn’t think their salary level was fair, it didn’t affect their desire to remain in or leave their positions.

These gaps also show up across the spectrum of educators: The same survey found gaps of about $20,000 for classroom teachers and $22,500 for superintendents, a remarkably consistent finding.

The principal figures are comparable to results from a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that while 94 percent of public school principals were “generally satisfied” with their jobs, 25 percent agreed that they would “leave their job as soon as possible” if they got a higher-paying opportunity.

Allovue, an education finance software company, commissioned the EdWeek Research Center to conduct a nationally representative survey of 1,855 teachers, school leaders, and district leaders on a variety of school finance topics. The survey was conducted online in November 2023 and released in April.

Principal attrition has seen a small uptick in recent years, though the change is smaller than the rise in teacher attrition. The challenges have accrued for a variety of factors—from student mental health challenges that have increased, to low academic achievement, and the chronic problem posed by elevated student absenteeism. School leaders have also been targets of online harassment by some students and parent communities via deepfakes and social media accounts.

How salary hikes for principals can impact teachers

Frequent principal turnover can leave schools unstable, often causing uncertainty for teachers and students. A principal leaving can depress student achievement scores for about two years, before they stabilize again, according to a 2013 study based on administrative data from the North Carolina public school system. Turnover of principals in low-income students exceeds that in other schools, so the effect tends to disproportionally affect them.

Frequent principal turnover can also harm teacher retention. If more principals leave because of low pay, it could fuel teacher attrition in schools that need quality educators most.

Conversely, an effective principal, especially when placed in a low-resource setting, can improve the school climate, support teachers with professional development, and parent engagement.

Principal pay hikes are not a priority

School leaders could be convinced to stay in their positions longer with a pay bump, but that doesn’t appear to be a top priority right now.

Respondents across all groups surveyed by the EdWeek Research Center—district leaders, school leaders, and teachers—commonly wanted to allocate a much smaller percentage of their districts’ budgets to administrator salaries. Just 2 percent of teachers responded in favor of salary hikes for administrators, in contrast to 22 percent of school leaders.

In a similar vein, 46 percent of teachers say a much smaller share of their district’s budget should go toward hiring more administrators, while 22 percent of school leaders felt the same.

In sharp contrast, the highest spending priority across all the respondents was to increase teacher salaries and to hire more teachers. Hiring teachers was closely followed by hiring paraprofessionals, social workers, counselors, and devoting resources to bolster social-emotional learning.

School leaders may find it increasingly difficult to find the resources for these hires as pandemic-triggered federal funding sunsets in September. Fifty-four percent of respondents to the survey worry that they won’t be able to fill positions in their schools at the salary levels they can afford.

Educators also fear that a higher per-pupil cost because of lower enrollment will take a toll on the services that schools can provide to their students.

A safety manager from a school district in Tennessee suggested that Congress wean districts off pandemic-relief funding rather than stop it all at once.

“We don’t need as much as probably we did initially, but we’ve still got needs,” the manager wrote in response to an open-ended question on the survey.

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

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