College of Education and Human Development

Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement

Second U of M Minnesota Principals Survey reveals key challenges and insight among nearly 1,000 PK-12 school leaders across the state

Results of the second biennial Minnesota Principals Survey (MnPS), a comprehensive 130+-question survey developed by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement (CAREI) in collaboration with a diverse group of educators and partners and generously funded by the Minneapolis Foundation and Joyce Foundation, have been released. The survey aims to elevate the voices of principals, assistant principals and charter school leaders across the state. 

Every principal, assistant principal and director of a public school or charter school in Minnesota (over 2,400 total) was invited to take the survey in November 2023. Nearly 1,000 PK-12 school leaders responded (41%, up from 34% in 2021) with a relatively even distribution: 50% of the respondents were from greater Minnesota and 50% were from the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, with an almost-even split between those representing elementary schools and those representing secondary schools.

The MnPS sought to determine how leaders felt about their jobs, not to assess how well they were doing their jobs. Questions covered a wide range of topic areas, including career information, preparation and licensure, working conditions, professional development experiences and needs, areas of leadership and responsibility, culturally responsive school leadership practices, state and district policy and supports, and mental health. Key findings from the survey and selected sections are summarized below.

“Principals play a critical role in meeting the needs of teachers, parents, and other community members who support our students and their academic success, and they’re uniquely positioned to see what’s happening in schools,” said Patrice Relerford, Vice President of Collective Impact and Giving with the Minneapolis Foundation. “The Minneapolis Foundation was proud to support the University of Minnesota in launching this survey, and we hope state lawmakers will now seize the opportunity to continue gathering the insights of these school leaders.” 

The complete MnPS report, executive summary, and all current and future products associated with the MnPS are available at  

Key Takeaways

While principals’ perspectives varied in important ways, the survey data revealed that principals:

  1. Feel their jobs are unsustainable. Consistent with 2021 survey findings, principals told us that their job responsibilities far exceed the time they have available to fulfill them, leading to stress, burnout, and, in some cases, intentions of leaving the principalship.
  2. …and yet, demonstrate slight improvement in some measures of wellbeing. For instance, leaders reported working an average of 1.6 hours less per week than they did in 2021—though they’re still working an average of 57 hours per week. Principals were slightly more likely to agree that their workloads were sustainable and that they were generally satisfied with being a school leader than they were in 2021.
  3. Don’t have enough time for instructional and community-engaged leadership. Principals shared they must sacrifice time they would like to spend (and are expected to spend) on instructional leadership and community engagement to attend to administrative tasks (e.g., filling staffing shortages) and respond to urgent student needs (e.g., student dysregulation). This finding was also very consistent with 2021 MnPS data.
  4. Engaged less frequently in some culturally responsive school leadership practices than they did in 2021. Specifically, a smaller percentage of principals reported developing culturally responsive teachers and including families in school-level decisions on a monthly or more frequent basis than they had in 2021. At the same time, principals were more likely to engage monthly or more often in the analysis of student data to identify academic and disciplinary disparities than they were in 2021.
  5. Lost confidence in their ability to carry out many leadership activities. The MnPS asks school leaders to report how much confidence they have in their ability to carry out 49 different leadership activities, in light of their own capabilities and available resources. The percentage of principals who reported having sufficient confidence decreased for 47 out of those 49 leadership activities between 2021 and 2023.
  6. Perceive student mental health as their single greatest challenge. Almost all (94%) principals agreed or somewhat agreed that student mental health challenges represent a major barrier to student learning at their schools. Principals believed that the student mental health challenges they witnessed at school were primarily caused by student trauma, social media engagement, and the mental health challenges of caregivers.
  7. Are frustrated with unfunded mandates and a lack of state guidance to meet their requirements… Many principals felt that the perspectives of school leaders were not heard during the last legislative session. They expressed that new regulations required significant staff time to implement without commensurate increases in staffing. Furthermore, they reported needing timely and clear guidance from MDE on how to implement new policies, including The READ Act and legislation around non-exclusionary discipline.
  8. …and as such, demand more funding from the legislature. Principals report needing more staff to support students experiencing mental health crises; more staff to free up teachers’ time for problem solving, professional learning, and collaboration (or more paid time without student supervisory responsibilities); and more reliable access to substitute teachers. Such changes require meaningful increases in funds for personnel.
  9. Foster wellbeing at school by authentically listening, building relationships, and demonstrating care. With the mental health challenges of students and staff at an all-time high, according to MnPS respondents, principals find success in building resilient school communities by prioritizing the more human elements of their work: giving students, staff, and families voice; nurturing genuine connections; and asking “How can I help?”
  10. Love their jobs despite the challenges. While this sentiment was not universal, 86% of principals reported being satisfied with their jobs, suggesting that despite the many and significant challenges they face, principals view their roles as fulfilling and meaningful. 

“This year’s survey helps us to understand the important work principals are doing, though unfortunately it also illustrates the overwhelming sense that they are too often lacking the time and resources needed, ” stated Dr. Katie Pekel, Project Lead and Executive Director of Educational Leadership at the University of Minnesota.

State and District Policy and Supports

One section of the survey pertained to principals’ perceptions of, and experiences with, accountability, support, and policy at both state and district levels.

Most leaders wanted greater influence over state and district policy: 76% of respondents somewhat agreed or agreed that they wanted greater influence over state policy, up from 70% in 2021. 79% of district respondents somewhat agreed or agreed that they wanted greater influence over district policy, compared to 78% in 2021.

Principals cited lack of time and feeling my voice will not be heard as their top two barriers to both state and district policy influence.

The survey asked principals to report their familiarity with, extent of responsibility for, and perceived confidence in implementing ten policy changes enacted during the 2023 Minnesota legislative session: The READ Act; non-exclusionary discipline; K-3 suspension; recess detention; prone restraint and physical holds; pupil withdrawal agreements; and curriculum requirements related to ethnic studies, American Indian culture and language, personal finance, and government and citizenship.

Across policy areas, principals reported needing information, guidance, and support to comply with recent legislation. They also needed time to plan, train their staff, and make necessary adjustments to local policies and practices. Many leaders reported needing funding, especially to fund staff that could support policy implementation. And finally, many respondents noted frustration with new mandates, especially those that did not come with additional funds or clear guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education.

“In addition to the quantitative data, the open ended comments that principals shared provide valuable information on what principals tell us they need in order to lead successfully. We are hopeful this data will be useful to legislators, district leaders and principal preparation programs,” remarked Pekel.

New in the 2023 survey: mental health

Student and staff mental health emerged from the initial 2021 MnPS survey data as a major challenge for principals, and follow-up focus groups reaffirmed the topic’s relevance to school leadership, and its impact on teaching and learning. As such, a new section focused specifically on mental health in the 2023 MnPS. Results focused on three main areas: student mental health, staff mental health, and principal wellbeing was included in the 2023 survey.

Student mental health

Principals selected addressing student mental health challenges as the leadership activity posing the “single greatest challenge” to them more than any other activity in 2023. 94% somewhat agreed or agreed with the statement, Student mental health challenges represent a major barrier to student learning at my school. 45% somewhat agreed or agreed with the statement, My school or district is able to provide adequate support for students experiencing mental health challenges.

The top three most-selected perceived root causes of student mental health challenges were: 

  • trauma experienced firsthand (primary trauma) (74% of respondents selected this option),
  • student engagement with social media (59%), and 
  • mental health challenges of caregivers (40%).

To address trauma experienced firsthand, principals suggested: greater access to mental health providers such as therapists, counselors, and social workers; community support from county agencies and nonprofits; more expansive therapy options for students and families; and trauma-informed care training and implementation support for all staff. 

To address student engagement with social media, principals suggested: cell phone bans or limited use policies; parent/caregiver education and involvement; curriculum on the negative impacts of social media use; and legal and/or legislative action to prevent social media and technology companies from targeting children. 

To address mental health challenges of caregivers, principals suggested: increasing caregivers’ access to mental health services and more robust wrap-around services provided at school sites. 

Staff mental health

Addressing staff mental health challenges was the third most-selected leadership activity posing the “single greatest challenge” to principals out of 49 possible activities.

70% somewhat agreed or agreed with the statement, Staff mental health challenges represent a major barrier to student learning at my school. 43% somewhat agreed or agreed  with the statement, My school or district is able to provide adequate support for staff experiencing mental health challenges.

The three most-selected perceived root causes of staff mental health challenges were: 

  • challenging student behavior (e.g., disengagement, threats, verbal or physical attacks) (81% of respondents selected this option); 
  • inadequate time to fulfill work responsibilities (65%); and 
  • staffing shortages (63%). 

To address challenging student behavior, principals suggested: more staff to support students; revising or potentially repealing the non-exclusionary discipline policy; and more funding to support staff and student learning and development (e.g., de-escalation strategies). 

To address inadequate time to fulfill work responsibilities, principals suggested: increased non-instructional staff time; a reorganization of the school day and year (e.g., transitioning to a four-day workweek); and more funding to support these and other changes. 

To address staffing shortages, principals suggested: increasing the pay of teachers, paraprofessionals, and substitute teachers; expanding pathways and opportunities for teacher licensure;  and alleviating substitute teacher shortages by allowing paraprofessionals to sub or by funding full-time building substitutes.

Principal wellbeing

81% somewhat agreed or agreed  with the statement, Most days, I experience an overall sense of wellbeing as a school leader. Top factors most detracting from principals’ wellbeing as school leaders included: inadequate time to fulfill work responsibilities, staffing shortages, and challenging student behaviors (e.g., disengagement, threats, verbal or physical attacks). 52% of principals somewhat agreed or agreed with the statement, My district is able to provide adequate support for school leaders experiencing mental health challenges.

When asked what lessons they had learned about fostering wellbeing in their school communities, top themes included the importance of building relationships, listening and responding to needs, leading through positive messaging and modeling, and establishing schoolwide programming and practices intended to promote wellbeing.  

Next Steps

The MnPS results provide the state with a wealth of information. In the coming months, the MnPS data will be widely disseminated, follow-up focus groups will be conducted to further understand key findings, and additional policy and practice briefs will be published in early 2025. At the time of this report, The Minneapolis Foundation is pursuing state legislation to fund this work moving forward.