Did principals leave their jobs in droves during the pandemic?
Researchers are still trying to figure out a definitive conclusion, but evolving data suggests that the answer may be no—or at least not everywhere.
In a new review of pandemic-era data on principals in Nebraska, Texas, and Pennsylvania from 2014 to 2022, found that principal attrition—those who left the profession in their states—fell in 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic, and rose the following year.
The increase in the percentage of principals leaving the job in 2021-22, however, was not necessarily higher than in pre-pandemic years, according to the research, released this month by Edward Fuller, an associate professor of education at Penn State University and Andrew Pendola, an associate professor at Auburn University, in Alabama.
Of the three states Fuller and Pendola studied, only Texas’ principal attrition rate was higher in the 2021-22 school year than in the years immediately preceding the pandemic, Fuller said.
The data also show differences in attrition among the type of schools principals led and whether they were located in cities or rural areas.
Here’s what new principal data show
- Texas’ principal attrition rate fell in 2020-21, the first full school year of the pandemic, from 15.5 to 13.2 percent, but jumped to 16.7 percent the next year. That increase was the largest one during the years Fuller and Pendola reviewed.
- The story was slightly different in Pennsylvania. While the principal attrition rate fell by 1.3 percentage points, from 11.5 percent to 10.2 percent in the 2020-21 school year, it increased by the same percentage point the following year—meaning that principals in Pennsylvania were leaving at just about the same rate during the pandemic as they’d been in pre-pandemic years.
- In Nebraska, the principal attrition rate fell in 2020-21 to 10.5 percent, from 12.3 percent the previous year, but bounded up the following year to 11.9 percent—still lower than the last pre-pandemic year.
- Rates varied by school level. In Texas, all three levels—elementary, middle and high school—followed the same pattern of declining in the first full pandemic year and increasing the second year. In Pennsylvania, the reduction showed up at all levels that first year but was more pronounced in elementary and middle schools. In the 2021-22 school year, however, attrition rose at all levels, with the highest increase, a 2.2 percentage point jump, in high schools.
- Principal attrition in high schools increased to 16.6 percent—a jump of 5.3 percentage points—in the first pandemic year in Nebraska, but it dropped in middle and elementary schools, according to Fuller. The reverse happened in 2021-22, when attrition fell in high school by 2.4 percentage points and rose in elementary schools by 2.5 percentage points and middle school by 3.5 percentage points.
- Rates also varied by school location. In Texas, principal attrition rates fell for all locations—city, town, rural, suburban—in 2020-21, but the increases were highest the following year in schools in the suburbs and in towns.
- Though principal attrition rates in cities were higher than in town, rural, and suburban schools in Pennsylvania, they generally stayed the same during the pandemic.
Why is it so hard to get this data?
A major stumbling block has been getting the data to answer that question.
While states have administrative data that give a window into principals’ movement in the pandemic years, they’re not readily available to the public, and national data on principal turnover and attrition from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics won’t be published until the fall.
Fuller says states can’t get critical insights into what’s happening in schools or make nuanced decisions about how to address the challenges without knowing the depth of the principal churn.
“If you are a state and you don’t have this data, you are missing some really important data in terms of understanding your student achievement and your teacher and employee staffing challenges,” he said. “We know when principals leave, you have other people leaving, [too].”
Why does all of this matter?
A significant chunk of principals have reported in various surveys since the pandemic started that they planned to quit soon. In one survey released last year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, close to 40 percent of principals said they intended to leave their jobs in the next three years.
But no data so far have shown a mass exodus of K-12 school leaders. That survey data could be reflecting principals’ fears and frustrations during a tumultuous few years—not only due to the pandemic, but also social and political arguments about elections, critical race theory, book bans, and other wedge issues.
The best national data on principals leaving their jobs during the pandemic come from a survey RAND Corporation released in February, though it relied on estimates rather than actual tallies of principal departure.
District superintendents and charter management organizations’ leaders who were polled estimated that principal turnover—those who left their school systems through retirements and resignations—rose to 16 percent in the 2021-22 school year, up from 6 percent in 2020-21 and 3 percent in 2019-20.
But Melissa Kay Diliberti, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and the author of last month’s report, cautioned at the time that leaders’ pre-pandemic principal turnover estimate appeared low. The 16 percent turnover they cited is actually closer to the annual national average from before the pandemic she said.
District leaders, she said, might have been looking back at the pre-pandemic years through rose-colored glasses before the challenges of the pandemic.
In all, Diliberti said that RAND’s research complements the new paper. Both suggest a drop in attrition in the first pandemic school year and an increase the second year.
“The ‘U-shape’ is very similar in our data,” she said. “From all the data I’ve seen that seems to be the general pattern.”
Will this pattern continue?
Whether that pattern continues—or is an anomaly—is left to be seen, she said. Data from this school year will be instrumental in helping illuminate whether the increase is part of a trend.
Fuller cautioned that more data are needed before making definitive statements about the link between the pandemic and school leadership turnover. National estimates often obscure differences between states and even within states, by geography and school levels, and three snapshots from states aren’t enough to present a full picture of leadership turnover and attrition.
And regardless of the ultimate answer, turnover among principals was already high before the pandemic, the researchers said.
“Principal turnover is such that if I’m a freshman in high school I’m unlikely to see my principal when I graduate,” Fuller said. “If I start 1st grade, I’m unlikely to see the same principal when I finish elementary school.
“If 20 percent of the teachers left school every year, it would be a national crisis,” he added. “There would be Blue Ribbon commissions. Everybody would be talking about it.”