School & District Management

Principals Still Like Their Jobs, New Data Show

By Denisa R. Superville — December 13, 2022 5 min read
Leader holding telescope and looking ahead while on top of ladder leaning on a large virus pathogen
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Amid the tumult and uncertainty of the first full school year of the pandemic, 94 percent of public school principals said they were generally satisfied with their jobs.

That was a relatively unchanged assessment of how principals viewed their jobs in pre-pandemic years, when school leaders reported nearly identical feelings in the 2016-17 school year.

But the job did show changes to reflect the times that principals were navigating: School leaders spent more time with students and parents than they had about a decade ago.

These are just a few of the data points in the National Center for Education Statistics’ survey of public and private school principals from the 2020-21 school year, which was released Wednesday.

The report gives a snapshot of school leadership during a historic period, including the demographic makeup of the profession, pay, working conditions, and school leaders’ views of their autonomy over key aspects of running a school.

While the vast majority of public school principals said they were satisfied at their school, about 35 percent said they weren’t as excited as when they’d first started their job. About a quarter said they’d leave if another higher-paying opportunity popped up. About 17 percent say they’d thought about not showing up to work because they were too tired—a number that was nearly four percentage points higher in charter schools than traditional public schools.

Still, those perceptions were not markedly different from pre-pandemic years.

Who are the nation’s principals?

Mostly women. Mostly white. Most younger than 50.

Fifty-six percent of public school principals were female in the 2020-21 school year, a slight uptick of two percentage points from the 2017-18 school year, the last year such data were reported.

Among private school principals, 63 percent were women. Women were also more likely to lead elementary schools.

The profession is still largely white, though charter schools have a more diverse set of leaders, with about 16 percent of their principals identifying as Black and 13.2 percent as Hispanic of any race.

Among traditional public school principals, about 10 percent of principals are Black and 9 percent identify as Hispanic of any race.

Both traditional and public charter schools have low representation of principals who are Asian or Asian-American, with just 0.9 percent in traditional public schools and 1.3 percent in charter schools.

City schools also have a more diverse principal corps. A higher than average percentage of principals of color led schools with large numbers of poor students. About 16 percent of principals in schools where 75 percent or more of the students qualified for free and reduced price meals were Black, while about 16 percent of those school leaders were Hispanic.

Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) are becoming a larger share of the public school principalship and they account for the biggest percentage of charter school principals.

While the average age of a public school principal was 48.5, nearly 40 percent of charter school principals were younger than 45.

A master’s degree was the most common advanced degree for public school principals. Sixty-two percent of public school principals held a master’s degree as their highest professional degree, while 11 percent held a doctorate degree.

What does principals’ compensation look like?

Traditional public school principals made more than their peers in charter schools—even after 10 years on the job.

The average annual salary for public school principals was $105,900 in the 2020-21 school year, with traditional public school principals earning $106,500, compared to $99,900 for those running charter schools.

Overall, there was a slight increase in the average salary for public school principals, from $98,300 in the 2017-18 school year.

Principals running suburban schools made more than their counterparts in cities, and rural principals made less than their city peers from the beginning to the end of their careers, with a gap of about $23,400 after a decade on the job.

The average annual salary for those working in schools where more than 75 percent of students qualified for free and reduced price meals at $104,100, was just $6,900 less, on average, than those leading schools where fewer than 35 percent of students qualified for those programs.

Principals in schools offering only remote instruction during the pandemic made higher than average salaries—perhaps, in part, because large districts in the cities and suburbs persisted with online schooling longer than their rural counterparts.

Working conditions, tenure, and autonomy

Overall, public school principals spent 58.3 hours a week on work-related activities, with very little difference between those leading traditional public and charter schools. Those leading hybrid schools worked slightly more hours than those with in-person and remote-only options. Principals in larger schools also spent more time on school-related work.

Public school principals devoted nearly 30 hours a week on administrative tasks versus 28.8 on curriculum.

With concerns about COVID safety and political and racial unrest in the 2020-21 school year, principals devoted nearly 24 hours a week on student interactions and 15 hours with parents. This is only slightly more than spent with students and parents a decade ago.

Public school principals had, on average, seven years of experience in the profession and about 4.5 years of experience at their current school. Job tenure was only slightly less for principals working in charter schools, at 4.3 years at their current school.

Tenure was longer in schools serving fewer poor students. Among schools where 75 percent of students or more qualified for free and reduced meals, 11.5 percent of principals had been there for a decade or more while that percentage was 15 percent in schools where fewer than 35 percent of students qualified for free and reduced price meals.

Private school principals were on the job for an average of nine years, with nearly seven years of experience at their current school.

With exceptions for how budgets are managed and teacher evaluations, charter school principals generally reported having more influence on school-related activities, such as setting performance standards for students, developing curriculum, hiring full-time teachers, and setting discipline policies.

Among traditional public school principals, suburban principals had the most say in their budgets. Overall, however, public school principals reported having the most influence over teacher evaluations (92.9 percent) and hiring full-time staff (89.4 percent). Just 32.8 percent of traditional public school principals said they had a major influence in developing curriculum, compared to 56 percent of charter school principals who said they did.

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