Compensation and Retention

Compensation and Retention

In order to develop high-quality early education leaders, policymakers need to first attract them to the field and then give them the supports they need to remain. This means providing them with adequate compensation, comfortable working conditions, and the resources to do their jobs well. Leader compensation should reflect their level of training and education, as well as the complex nature of the job. Retaining effective principals and center directors is essential to program quality and ensures continuity for program staff, families, and, most importantly, children. State policies around compensation and work supports can influence whether leaders stay in the field.

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Principal Compensation and Retention

Average Salary

Principals deserve compensation that appropriately reflects their significant responsibilities, high level of education, and substantial work experience. Salaries should be comparable to those of leaders in other fields with similar qualifications.

New America’s Finding: The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average salary for elementary and secondary school educational administrators was $90,410 as of May 2015. This ranged from $67,890 in West Virginia to $124,560 in New Jersey. Unfortunately, these data are not disaggregated by elementary, middle, or high school. Elementary school principals are often paid less than those leading schools with older students.
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What is the average salary for school principals in the state, as of 2015?


Fringe benefits are an important part of overall compensation and can contribute to a principal’s quality of life. Research has shown that benefits, especially health care and paid leave, are top contributors to job satisfaction.

New America’s Finding: While many states were unable to provide data on overall principal compensation because they do not collect it, 28 states and Washington, DC reported that principals’ benefits packages usually include health insurance, pension or retirement contributions, and paid sick leave.
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What is usually included in a principal's benefits package?

Tracking Turnover

According to a 2014 report by the School Leaders Network, “50 percent of new principals quit during their third year in the role. Those that remain frequently do not stay at high-poverty schools, trading difficult-to-lead schools for less demanding leadership roles that serve more affluent populations.” Principals play a key role in reforming struggling schools, and constant turnover is disruptive for reform efforts that can take many years to implement. One principal we interviewed said that “it takes three to five years for principals to settle in. You don’t build capacity in a building when you are busy building the capacity of the principal.” The School Leaders Network also estimates that it takes approximately five years to fully implement reforms that can improve school performance.

New America’s Finding: Seventeen states reported that they track principal turnover. Twenty-four states and Washington, DC said that they did not. New America does not have data on the nine remaining states.
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Does the state track principal turnover?

Center Director Compensation and Retention

Center director salaries remain low across most states and lower than principals in all states. States and districts do not set standards for center director compensation as they do with principals. Research shows that employees in child care centers are less likely to have employee benefits, such as health care, retirement contributions, and paid sick days, than those employed by public school districts. We know that center teachers often do not have these benefits and so we assume that directors do not either.

New America’s Finding: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a child care center director in 2015 was $52,760. This ranged from $39,190 in Tennessee to $68,180 in Washington, DC. We were unable to determine what types of benefits are usually included in center directors’ compensation due to a lack of available data.
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What is the average salary for a pre-K or child care center director, as of 2015?

Compensation and Retention Takeaways

Despite their similar responsibilities, center directors overseeing pre-K classrooms are compensated at a rate much lower than elementary school principals. This may include access to benefits like health insurance, paid sick leave, and retirement contributions, which contribute to employee well-being. This type of disparity is true throughout early childhood education when comparing the child care workforce to the K–12 workforce. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research, only 14 states with public pre-K programs require salary parity between pre-K teachers and those teaching kindergarten through third grade. Pre-K teachers and leaders working in child care centers deserve compensation commensurate with the complexity and importance of their work. Especially if states are requiring center directors to have higher levels of education and training, there needs to be additional public investment to help pay for better compensation to help these leaders afford more schooling and to retain them once their qualifications increase.

Adequate compensation is a key factor in retaining a high-quality workforce. Leader turnover is disruptive to all staff and can diminish the quality of care and education. Research has found that turnover is high among both principals and center directors. According to Transforming the Workforce, turnover in child care settings is four times higher than in elementary school settings. However, we were unable to find state-level data specifically on director turnover. Tracking turnover is an important step states can take to understand the stability of their workforce. However, it is what states do with these data that is most important. When policymakers are cognizant of which programs or districts experience high turnover and why, they can target supports to promote workforce stability.