The Pre-K–8 School Leader in 2018: A 10-Year Study

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Since the 1928 publication of its first 10-year study, The K-8 Principal, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has been collecting data on the climate, challenges, and conditions that mark the principalship. The Pre-K-8 School Leader in 2018: A 10-Year Study is the ninth in this series of research studies, and it imparts new information about the current education climate; the challenges veteran, early career, and assistant principals face; the students they serve; and the conditions under which they work.

NAESP is proud to have partnered with the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) to develop this research.


NAESP Releases New Report on the Principalship

Social-emotional learning emerges as a top issue of concern for elementary principals.

Alexandria, VA—June 6, 2018—Social-emotional learning, mental health, and student poverty are among the top student-related concerns of Pre-K through grade 8 principals, according to The Pre-K-8 School Leader in 2018: A 10-Year Study. The new study is the ninth in a series published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP). Since 1928, NAESP has reviewed the trends and working conditions of principal leadership, as well as their impact on the students and the entire school community.

“School principals set the tone for everything from school climate to school improvement. That is why we need to know more about their experiences,” said NAESP Executive Director Dr. L. Earl Franks, CAE. “It’s essential that policymakers focus on what principals identify as their leaning needs, and then support them with associated professional learning opportunities.”  

The study reviews data in 10 areas, including: 

  • Experience and professional preparation;
  • Accountability and decision-making;
  • Conditions of employment;
  • Professional learning needs; and
  • Future career intentions.

NAESP partnered with the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) to develop this resource. “The quality of education a student experiences in elementary school greatly impacts their education and life trajectory, and research has demonstrated that educational leaders strongly shape the conditions for high-quality teaching and learning,” said UCEA Executive Director Michelle Young. “The NAESP 10-year study provides a portrait of these critical educational professionals, their concerns, their triumphs and key considerations for educational stakeholders. It not only provides vivid insight into the work of contemporary elementary school leaders, but it also identifies multiple avenues for future research.”

“Recent research has shown that 20 percent of principals leave their positions each year, with almost 30 percent of principals in high-poverty schools leaving each year. In fact, the average school tenure of a principal is less than five years,” said Ed Fuller, who is UCEA Associate Director for Policy and one of the report authors. “This high rate of churn has negative effects on both teachers and students as well as costs districts a substantial amount of money. Some emerging research suggests that the working conditions of principals substantially affects their decisions to stay in a school. Moreover, working conditions appear to also affect their effectiveness on the job. Thus, understanding how to better support principals in the important work they do is critical to improving schools.”

Responses to the 2018 NAESP 10-year study identify multiple areas of professional development need, including improving student performance, improving staff performance, understanding and applying technology, time management, using social media effectively, and school improvement planning.

Read the full report here.


Principals are the primary catalysts for creating lasting foundations for learning. Since 1921, the National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has been the leading advocate for elementary and middle-level principals in the United States and worldwide. NAESP advances the profession by developing policy, advancing advocacy, and providing professional development and resources for instructional leadership, including specialized support and mentoring for early career principals. Key focus areas include pre-K-3 education, school safety, technology and digital learning, and effective educator evaluation. For more information about NAESP, please visit NAESP administers the National Principals Resource Center, the American Student Council Association, and the President's Education Awards & American Citizenship Awards Programs.

Key Findings

Findings from The Pre-K-8 School Leader in 2018: A 10-Year Study provide insight into key factors and trends impacting public schools in general, as well as school leadership.

Social-Emotional Learning: The top-ranked concern for 2018 responding principals was addressing the increase of students with emotional problems. Among those issues identified were the management of student behavior, student mental health issues, absenteeism, lack of effective adult supervision at home, and student poverty. In contrast, none of the student-related issues were identified as a major concern in 2008.

Working Conditions: The average number of reported hours per workweek has increased steadily over the past 90 years—from 44 hours in 1928, to 56 hours in 2008, to 61 hours in 2018. Additionally, the average number of school-related work hours per week outside of the school building was almost 8 hours for 2018 respondents—an increase of 1 hour over the past decade.

Employment Contracts: Between 2008 and 2018, the longevity of contracts decreased such that the majority of the contract terms shifted from 2 or more years in length in 2008 to 1 year in length in 2018. The months designated in principal contracts have steadily increased over time such that 50% of respondents in 2018 reported having a 12-month contract, compared to only 12% of respondents in 1958.

Equity: On average, principals surveyed were 50 years old, female, and White. The median school enrollment increased from 450 in 2008 to 505 in 2018. Further, 62% of principals indicated that the number of assistant principals assigned to their building was not enough to ensure effective school leadership that meets the needs of all students.

Preparation and support: Whereas more than half of respondents indicated they had participated in online development programs, respondents also indicated that practical experience as an administrator and as a teacher was the most valuable influence on their success. Principals identified improving student performance as the key area of need for professional development.

Authority: Over the last three decades, respondents have noted having substantially less influence over district decisions concerning elementary schools and elementary education.