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Principals Spend Nearly 60 Hours a Week on Work, REL Study Finds

Posted by Heather Lavigne on November 28, 2016

Anyone who has spent a fair amount of time around schools knows that a principal’s work is never done. But how many hours do they actually spend each week on the job? And what exactly do they do with this time?

The REL Northeast & Islands Governing Board asked a team of REL researchers, including myself, to examine these questions, and others related to the types of professional development in which principals participate. To answer the board’s questions, our research team analyzed data from the 2011/12 Schools and Staffing Survey administered by the National Center for Education Statistics. We looked at how much time principals reported they spent on job-related tasks and on professional development by school grade level, school poverty level, and within school poverty level by school adequate yearly progress status.

The result is “Principals’ Time, Tasks, and Professional Development: An analysis of Schools and Staffing Survey Data,” a recently published study from the Institute of Education Sciences that finds that school principals, on average, work nearly 60 hours a week, or 1.5 times the standard, full-time workload. Across the five types of job-related tasks included in the survey, principals said they spent most of their time (31%) on internal administrative tasks, followed by curriculum- and teaching-related tasks (27%), student interactions (23%), parent interactions (13%), and other tasks (7%). “Internal administrative tasks” include work on such things as personnel issues, regulations, reports, and school budgets, while “curriculum- and teaching-related tasks” refer to teaching, lesson preparation, classroom observations, and mentoring teachers.”

Principals spend more than half their time on internal administrative tasks and curriculum- and teaching-related tasks

Source: 2011/12 Schools and Staffing Survey, National Center on Education Statistics

Additional findings include the following:

  • High school principals reported spending more hours per week on the job than did middle school and primary school principals.
  • Principals in high- and low-poverty schools reported spending roughly the same number of hours per week on the job.
  • Regardless of school poverty level, principals of schools that did not make adequate yearly progress during the previous year reported spending more hours per week on the job than did principals of schools that made adequate yearly progress.
  • Principals’ most commonly reported type of professional development was workshop and conference attendance; the least frequently reported was university courses.

Since the study’s release in October, it has attracted a national audience. Education Week has published an article about the findings as well as a related series of videos looking at how principals spend their time.

While our report is a snapshot in time, we believe it offers a useful documentation of how hard principals work and their wide range of responsibilities, which has only increased in our current era of accountability. Governing Board members have told us the findings can contribute to future conversations about how to build strong school leadership.

Former Governing Board member Gary MacDonald, a retired superintendent of Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) 72 in Fryeburg, Maine, and a member of the study’s advisory committee, explained: “Personally, the study’s findings confirmed my general perspective that the principal’s role is complex and demanding. The finding that principals, on average, spend 59 hours a week on the job was not surprising. How they spend their time was discouraging, but not surprising.”

MacDonald went on to say, “There are obviously many components to a principal’s role: many are the administrative tasks that must be done for the orderly running of the school and that are most visible to the observer if they are not accomplished. Unfortunately, the important instructional leadership components are often not as visible, but are ultimately the key to student achievement.”

The REL research team believes this study is a jumping-off point for states and districts to better understand the workloads of principals. REL Northeast & Islands has created a number of resources to facilitate discussions about research findings and data use. One such resource is our Discussion Tree Tool Template. This tool helps education leaders better understand how the results from one study might apply to their local context. School and district leaders can use the tool to facilitate a conversation in which they articulate what can be learned from the study, identify action steps to further understand the local context with additional data, or decide how available data can inform decisions at the local level. By better understanding the task demands and professional needs of principals, state and district leaders can identify the additional supports that can best support principals’ leadership capacities.

Browse all REL Northeast & Islands publications.

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