The Great American Principal Turnover -- And How Districts Can Stop the Churn

The Great American Principal Turnover -- And How Districts Can Stop the Churn
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New Abilene High School Principal Robert Morrison, left, helps student Chris Patterson find his classroom on the first day of class Monday, Aug. 22, 2016, in Abilene, Texas. (Nellie Doneva/The Abilene Reporter-News via AP)

RCEd Commentary

As students start heading back to school this month, many newspapers are announcing changes in school leadership for the new year. These stories have titles like, “Lake Wobegon School Board Confirms Three New Principals for the 2016-17 School Year” and “Sweet Valley High Assistant Principal Ready to Take the Reigns as Principal.” A new principal in a school has become so commonplace, you may have skimmed over the story, especially if the change doesn’t affect your school.

What has caught our attention is that there are just so many of these types of announcements. A quick Google search shows the following stories: Chicago Public Schools reports 54 principals departed at the end of 2016. The Savannah-Chatham school system changed principals in 14 schools. Hartford Public Schools is replacing 15 school principals. This is not just happenstance affecting an individual school and community. It is an alarming trend.

While some principal turnover is good and expected, multiple studies point to the effects of high principal turnover rates in school districts. For example:

- In 2014, a School Leaders Network  report found half of new principals leave by their third year;

- In 2012, RAND researchers found that when principals leave, the school underperforms the next year

According to the 2012-13 principal staffing survey from the US Department of Education, over 20 percent of principals left their schools and over 70 percent of principals have less than five years at their current schools.

Consider the ramifications of these alarming rates. If half of your favorite baseball team turned over, you’d call the next year a rebuilding year and wouldn’t expect much from your team. Yet, principal turnover at these rates is happening in school districts year after year.

What’s more, principal turnover rates in schools with high percentages of minority students and students living in poverty tend to have higher rates of principal (and teacher) turnover. How can school districts close achievement gaps and improve schools when nearly half their leadership team disappears?

What we have learned through our work is that a systematic approach to managing principal talent is imperative to reducing turnover. We will release in October a guide for districts to use in in hiring, retaining, and developing school leaders. But here are the top five things we already know districts can do this school year to hire, retain, and develop their principals:

Hire for Now and the Future. Districts should hire new principals that have met clear standards of excellence and have potential for contributing to the district leadership team in the future. Filling a vacant position only to have the new principal leave within a year can do more damage than good.

Data systems can help here because districts can track factors like retirements so they're prepared with a pool of well qualified aspiring principals to take those seats. The Gwinnett County Public Schools, a Broad Prize-winning district in suburban Atlanta, has learned how to do this -- and benefited from the strategy.

Principal Induction. Principal turnover is highest in the first three years on the job. Allowing principals an induction period during those critical years can help retain and develop them. The induction period should include reducing workloads, providing in-school supervision, coaching on instructional leadership, and building professional networks for the new leaders.

Manage Expectations. New principals and experienced principals that are new to schools need between three and five years to have an impact on student achievement. But new principals do have more immediate impact on elements like school climate, teacher retention, and implementation of new district policies and programs. Districts and principal supervisors should set reasonable performance expectations for what they can achieve in a year -- and what they cannot.

Give Autonomy. "Balanced autonomy” gives principals the freedom to make critical decisions to run an effective school while the district holds them accountable for those decisions and the support to get things done. For example, school principals should have wide latitude on how the school schedule runs, and shouldn’t have to spend a large amount of their time on things like building maintenance.

Get Creative on the Perks. Research is clear that districts should pay their principals a fair wage. But districts should be creative on other perks that not many in schools are trying. For example, consider job sharing or look at some of the perks offered at companies such as Google. Districts may not have the budget to supply unlimited gourmet snacks, but they may be surprised by what they can do.

Together, these reforms can help school districts stop the turnover and build for the future. And districts can start enacting them now, just as the school year is starting. 

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