School & District Management

Principals Work 60-Hour Weeks, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 01, 2016 3 min read
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A national study shows that principals regularly clock more than a standard, full-time workload every week.

On average, principals work nearly 60 hours a week, with leaders of high-poverty schools racking up even more time, according to the first nationally representative study of how principals use their time. It was released last month by the federal Regional Education Laboratory for Northeast and Islands.

“Years ago, I tried the best I could to get everything done in ‘normal work hours,’ but these last 10 years, I’ve just assumed Sunday is going to be a work day for six or seven hours,” said Eric Cardwell, the principal of the 525-student Besser Elementary School in Alpena, Mich. “The principalship: It’s not a job; it’s a lifestyle,” he added.

How Principals Spend Their Time

Paperwork takes up the largest chunk of principals’ work week.


Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Cardwell is not alone. REL researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of about 6,000 elementary and secondary principals who participated in the federal Schools and Staffing Survey during the 2011-12 school year. Principals reported the largest portion of their week, 31 percent, was taken up with administrative tasks, such as paperwork and scheduling. They spent another 27 percent of their time on curriculum and staffing, including staff evaluations, classroom observations, and course planning. They also spent a signifcant amount of time interacting with students and their parents, 23 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

See Also: 4 Things Great Principals Don’t Do (Opinion)

“Being a principal is definitely more than a typical 40-hours-a-week job,” said Heather Lavigne, an education researcher at the Education Development Center Inc., who led the study for the regional lab. “It shows the difference between what people consider a regular full-time job and what principals have on their plate.”

Two years ago, trying to get a better understanding of his own workload, Cardwell tracked his own hours. “Just evaluating my 20 teachers, I logged in excess of 240 hours—that’s six weeks on evaluations alone,” he said.

School leaders don’t report a lot of detail on their tasks for the federal survey, so Lavigne and her colleagues were not able to analyze differences within categories. She warned: “High-poverty and low-poverty schools might be doing some very different administrative tasks.”

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Brad Gustafson agreed. The head of the 750-student Greenwood Elementary School in Plymouth, Minn., Gustafson said total work hours can be deceiving. “Line up 10 or 100 or 1,000 principals, and they could all be doing 60 hours and all be doing drastically different things,” he said.

However, a 2014 study of principals in Miami-Dade County, Fla., schools found that some types of curriculum and instructional leadership were more effective than others. While spending more time coaching teachers was associated with improved student achievement, just doing classroom observations was linked to lower student achievement.

Managing Time

Work hours for principals have been creeping up in the past decade, according to Gail Connelly, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “We’ve seen an increase in the last decade as we’ve entered the era of high-stakes accountability. It used to be closer to 50 hours a week,” she said. “We know the principal’s role is more complex and multifaceted than it’s ever been.”

Connelly said the rising workload has contributed to a parallel increase in turnover among young principals; while the average principal stayed 10 years or more in a school a decade ago, the average stay is now three years.

Both Gustafson, who leads a low-poverty school, and Cardwell, at a high-poverty one, try to push administrative and paperwork tasks until after the school day ends and prioritize working with students and teachers during school hours.

For example, Gustafson last year found himself spending several hours a week on an outreach newsletter to parents and the community. After talking with students, he switched to working with them on a weekly podcast. “Now, it’s not just getting our school’s story out, but students are actually becoming more literate in those [communication] skills,” he said. Distributing leadership roles among other teachers and staff members can also help build capacity and recover time, Cardwell said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2016 edition of Education Week as Principals Work Nearly 60 Hours a Week, According to Study

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