This blog post was written using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) report titled “Characteristics of 2020–21 Public and Private K–12 School Principals in the United States, Results From the National Teacher and Principal Survey, First Look,” dated December 2022.1
Despite the challenges of the 2020-21 COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of public school principals, 94%, reported job satisfaction, according to a recent survey by the Institution of Education Sciences, the research arm of the National Center for Education Statistics.
Of note, the satisfaction levels of the principals surveyed were nearly identical to those reported in the pre-pandemic 2016-17 school year.
Even facing the difficult circumstances brought on by the pandemic, principals steadfastly stayed the course of their leadership responsibilities even as they navigated new ways of interacting with students, families, and caregivers. With a greater focus on supporting and engaging with their school communities than ever before, these dedicated leaders demonstrated an unwavering commitment to their roles.
The survey offers valuable insight into the experiences of both public and private school principals during the 2020-21 school year.
Read on to learn why—and how—today’s principals continue to find satisfaction as leaders in an evolving, challenging educational environment.
National Center for Education Statistics: Providing vital data and research to inform education policy and practice
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is a federal agency operating within the United States Department of Education. It is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data related to education in the United States. The agency's primary goal is to provide reliable and accurate statistical information to policymakers, educators, and researchers in the education community.
NCES collects data from a wide range of sources, including surveys of schools, students, and teachers, as well as administrative data from state education agencies. The agency's data collection efforts cover a broad range of topics, including student enrollment and demographics, academic achievement, school finance, postsecondary education, and adult literacy.
In addition to collecting and analyzing data, NCES also produces a variety of reports and publications that help to inform policymakers and educators about trends and issues in education. These reports include The Condition of Education, which provides an annual overview of the state of education, and the Digest of Education Statistics, which provides a comprehensive collection of statistical information on education.
In sum, NCES plays a vital role in helping to inform education policy and practice in the United States by providing high-quality data and research to the education community.
Inside the challenges of school leadership: A snapshot of demographics, pay, and autonomy during an historic period
The 2020-21 NCES report provides a comprehensive overview of the state of school leadership during a significant period in history, with a focus on various factors such as the demographics of the profession, compensation, working conditions, and school leaders' autonomy in managing various aspects of running a school.
According to the report, a sizable proportion of public school principals expressed satisfaction with their roles.
A smaller proportion, 35%, of respondents reported a decline in their excitement levels compared to when they initially started their principal jobs. Approximately 25% of respondents indicated they would consider leaving their current jobs if presented with a better-paying opportunity.
One striking discovery emerged regarding school leaders: nearly one-fifth have contemplated skipping work due to burnout. Notably, the issue appears to affect charter school administrators more than those in traditional public school positions. These findings shed light on the demanding nature of educational leadership and the need for support and resources to prevent exhaustion among our educators at different types of schools.
The report also noted that these perceptions were not significantly different from those observed before the pandemic. This suggests that some challenges school leaders are encountering are not new, but may have been intensified by the pandemic.
In its totality, the report highlights some of the difficulties faced by school leaders in today's educational landscape. While many school leaders expressed satisfaction with their roles, there are still concerns regarding compensation, working conditions, and overall fatigue levels. By illuminating these issues, the report can help stakeholders and policymakers take steps to address them and support school leaders in their crucial work of educating our future generations.
Principal demographics: Who is in charge of our nation’s schools
The American education system has a diverse mix of school principals, with some variations in gender, race, and age. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that different types of schools have different levels of diversity in their leadership.
Gender and race identity
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that the majority of principals in American public and private schools are women, with 56% of public school principals and 63% of private school principals being female. The percentage of female public school principals increased by two points from the previous reporting year in 2017-18. Women were found to be more likely to lead elementary schools than secondary schools.
When it comes to racial identity, the profession of school leadership remains largely dominated by white individuals. Among traditional public school principals, just 10% are Black and just 9% identify as Hispanic.
Charter schools boast diverse leadership
Charter schools were found to have more diversity at the leadership level, with approximately 16% of their principals identifying as Black and 13.2% as Hispanic. Both traditional and public charter schools have a low representation of principals who are Asian or Asian-American, with only 0.9% in traditional public schools and 1.3% in charter schools.
Diverse principals lead low-income students in city schools
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, city schools have a more diverse principal corps compared to other types of schools. In particular, a higher percentage of principals of color were found to lead schools with a high number of low-income students. Roughly 16% of principals in schools where 75% or more of the students qualified for free and reduced-price meals were Black, while a similar percentage of school leaders were Hispanic.
Millennials are coming onboard
The data also shows that the millennial generation, born between 1981 and 1996, is quickly becoming the driving force behind public school principalship. An increasing number of millennials are taking on leadership roles. This younger age group is also filling a significant percentage of charter school principal positions and bringing fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to the education landscape. Nearly 40% of charter school principals were younger than 45, while the average age of a public school principal was 48.5.
Education level matters
When it comes to educational qualifications for public school principals, a master's degree takes the lead as the most popular advanced degree. A recent study found that 62% of public school principals held a master's degree, while only a small percentage, 11%, held a doctorate. The significance of obtaining an online Master’s in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies—particularly from prestigious institutions such as the University of Kansas School of Education— cannot be overstated for those who aspire to leadership roles in the education sector.
Strides toward diversity
There is evidence that charter schools are making strides in increasing the diversity of their leadership. The low representation of principals who are Asian or Asian-American in both traditional public schools and charter schools highlights the need for more targeted efforts to ensure greater representation and inclusivity.
Additionally, the data reveals that younger generations, specifically millennials, are taking on leadership roles in the education sector. This shift towards younger leadership may bring fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to the profession, but it also highlights the need for targeted professional development and mentorship programs to support these emerging leaders.
Ultimately, these findings serve as a call to action for the education sector to prioritize diversity and inclusivity in its leadership and to support and empower the next generation of school leaders.
U.S. school principals’ salaries: Key trends & disparities
After a decade of leading their schools, traditional public school principals are still earning more than their charter school counterparts, according to the study.
In the 2020-21 school year, traditional public school principals earned more than their peers in charter schools, with an average annual salary of $106,500 compared to $99,900. Despite being in the same position for a decade, the salary gap remained. The average salary for all public school principals increased slightly from $98,300 in 2017-18.
Principals in suburban schools earned more than those in urban areas. Rural principals earned less than their urban counterparts, with a pay gap of approximately $23,400 after ten years with principal jobs.
The average annual salary for principals in schools where 75% or more of students qualified for free and reduced-price meals was only $6,900 less than those leading schools where less than 35% of students qualified for these programs.
During the pandemic, principals who led schools offering only remote instruction earned higher-than-average salaries, possibly due to large urban and suburban districts continuing with online schooling for longer periods than their rural counterparts.
Public school principals shift focus to students amid turbulent times
Irrespective of these recent obstacles, principals have remained committed to engaging with their students, caregiver, and families in meaningful ways.
The NCES study revealed the challenging workload of public school leaders who dedicate an average of 58.3 hours per week to their principal jobs. The research also showed that there are no significant differences in working hours between traditional public and charter schools.
Though the study find varying differences in how school leaders spent those hours. For example, principals in hybrid schools seem to work slightly longer hours than their counterparts in schools with solely in-person or remote options. Principals in larger schools devoted more time to work-related activities. Public school principals, on the other hand, spent nearly 30 hours per week on administrative tasks compared to 28.8 hours on curriculum-related work.
During the 2020-21 school year, principals devoted nearly 24 hours per week to student interactions and 15 hours to interacting with families and caregivers. This is only slightly more than the time spent interacting with students, families, and caregivers a decade ago. Given the challenges posed by COVID-19, as well as the political and racial unrest in the U.S. during the 2020-21 school year, the amount of time spent on student and parent interactions was relatively significant.
School principal tenure linked to student demographics
The average public school principal has around seven years of experience in the field, with about 4.5 of those years at their current school. Charter school principals have similar job tenure, with an average of 4.3 years at their current school.
The average private school principal had approximately seven years of experience at their current school, and a total of nine years in the profession.
According to the study, tenure seems to differ based on the socioeconomic status of the student body. In schools with a higher percentage of students receiving free and reduced meals, only 11.5 percent of principals have been there for ten or more years. On the other hand, in schools where fewer than 35 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, 15 percent of principals have ten or more years of tenure.
Charter school principals have more influence on school-related activities
The 2020-21 NCES report found that charter school principals have a greater say in important school-related activities than their traditional public school counterparts. Specifically, they have more control over setting performance standards for students, developing curriculum, hiring full-time teachers, and setting discipline policies.
Meanwhile, suburban public school principals have a different area of focus, with more control over their budgets compared to their urban or rural peers. When it comes to decision-making, public school principals have the most influence over hiring full-time staff and teacher evaluations. Interestingly, the report showed that only 32.8% of traditional public school principals have a significant voice in developing curricula, while 56% of charter school principals are involved in this decision-making process.
Key NCES principal report takeaways
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) provides vital data and research to inform education policy and practice in the United States. Its recent report on school leadership during the 2020-21 academic year sheds light on the state of educational leadership, including demographics, pay, and autonomy.
In spite of recent adversities brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of school principals remain committed to their roles and did not report a significant impact on their job satisfaction levels.
The report highlights the need for support and resources to prevent burnout among educators, particularly for charter school administrators. Additionally, the report reveals that the school leadership profession is largely dominated by those identifying as women and white individuals, with low representation from those who identify as Black and Hispanic.
Overall, the NCES report provides valuable insights into the experiences of school leaders and the state of education in the United States. It can help policymakers and educators address the challenges and support school leaders in their crucial work of educating our future generations.
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