The question of average head of school tenure comes up time and time again, and its answer is relied upon as an indicator on school stability and strength. There is even evidence to suggest head of school tenure affects student outcomes (see “Contextual Factors Related to Elementary Principal Turnover,” “The Cascading Effects of Principal Turnover on Students and Schools” and “Learning from Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning”). It’s often seen as a statement of the sustainability of the headship and validation on job satisfaction.
For Jewish day schools and yeshivas, length of headship is often lamented as too low. A 2015 RAVSAK study about heads of Community day schools found that “many of our heads are novice or relatively new to their school. 39% of heads of school have been in their positions for 2 years or less, 20% for less than 1 year.” Two recent data collections have given us new insight on head of school tenure for the 2022-23 school year.
Prizmah recently collected data from 68 Orthodox schools and from 50 Community, Conservative and Reform schools about the number of years their current head of school has been employed at their current school in their current role. The results change the narrative about head of school longevity. As not all schools have someone who holds the title head of school, the data reported herein uses the National Association of Independent Schools definition for the head of school role: the person in the school who is responsible for all internal operations and, in most cases, external operations of the school.
For the 2022-2023 school year, the average head of Orthodox school tenure is 6.5 years, and the average for head of Community, Conservative and Reform schools is 7.5 years. The median tenure for all schools is 5 years.
Median Tenure at Jewish Schools Aligns with Independent Schools
At times, key day school metrics align with independent school trends. The average head of school tenure for National Association of Independent School members is 7.7 years, similar to Jewish day schools and yeshivas. The median is 5 years, the same as Jewish schools..
Most Heads Have Served Under Five Years
A deeper look into the data tells another story, that over 60% of heads of Orthodox schools have been at their current schools for five years or under. The same is true of 57% of heads of Community, Conservative and Reform schools. Five years or under likely means that they are in their first or second contract term with the school. While many heads have led their schools for 10, 15 and 20 years, still the majority are not breaking the significant five-year mark.
Looking at these findings, I think we need to ask some important questions.
1. The stress of being a school leader and the stress of being a board member during the pandemic led some heads of school to leave and also contributed to boards making decisions to continue contracts with their heads. How did the pandemic affect head of school tenure?
2. Is there a length of tenure that is considered good or desirable? How long would we expect school leaders to stay in their current positions, given how frequently organizational leaders in general society change jobs? According to Bloomberg News, in 2022, “the average tenure of CEOs on the S&P 500 Industrial Index will drop to just 4.9 years... That’s down from 5.5 years at the end of 2019 and about six years as of five years ago in mid-2017".
3. Over the last decade there has been a change in attitude around head of school coaching. Fifteen to 20 years ago, there were a handful of heads who had a professional coach; now it is commonplace. Hiring a coach can be a statement from the board that they acknowledge their lead professional needs support, that they are willing to invest in their head as proof of a long-term commitment.
In 2018, Prizmah launched a coaching institute so that we could better support field leaders and help increase their effectiveness in their role. Since then, Prizmah has seen the demand for coaches increase. Another effort over the last five years that has the potential to contribute to head of school tenure is the effort by Prizmah and other organizations, through programs such as the Leading Edge Jewish Non-Profit Board Member Institute in partnership with Kellogg School of Management and Prizmah’s Board Fitness, to impact, train and support board leaders. How have supports such as coaching and programs for board leaders impacted head of school tenure?
We may not have the answers to all the questions. Even so, having data and knowledge about the landscape of current day school leadership can help organizations, funders and policy makers creatively deploy strategies to support head of school job satisfaction and performance and to address head of school tenure head on.