Five years ago, the George W. Bush Institute embarked on a project to find out what practical and policy changes districts could make to keep good principals in schools.
The project posited that making specific changes around how principals are recruited, how they are managed and evaluated, and their working conditions would increase on-the-job satisfaction and, ultimately, keep principals in the profession.
But the project, which ran from 2017-2021, was not just about making changes to district policies around those key issues, as well as others like compensation. It was also about how well the districts went about implementing the changes.
Principals in the districts that were part of the project were surveyed annually to get their perceptions. Two clear takeaways emerged.
Evaluations and school climate matter
Not all changes led to greater satisfaction. Across all the districts, principals had a more favorable view of changes their school systems made to professional development and in areas of improving school climate and culture.
But there was no statistically significant difference in how principals viewed changes to how they were managed—the districts spent time on overhauling their principal supervisor processes—though the numbers were trending in a positive direction, said Eva Chiang, the managing director of leadership and programming at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
How principals felt about their evaluations, satisfaction on the job, as well as their schools’ climate and culture, were big predictors of whether they stayed or left the job.
Money matters in keeping principals—but it’s not the only thing that counts
The managers of the project found that while principals may be dissatisfied with their pay, they’d stick around if they felt connected to their jobs. It was about whether they fit or felt valued, Chiang said.
The lesson here for districts is that even if there aren’t large sums of money to give big salary increases, district leaders can carve out opportunities for principals to get more value from their jobs, Chiang said.
One of the districts, for example, revamped its principal support structure and gave exemplary principals the chance to serve as “leads” in redrawn professional learning groups. That came with an added pay bump, but also with more autonomy and authority for some principals.
Other districts paid more attention to principals’ voice—inviting school leaders to discussions that ultimately shaped policies and practices around school leader recruitment, said Anne Wicks, the director of education and opportunity initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute.
There are a few caveats to the findings. Though the project started with four districts, the data for the analysis are from three because one district stepped aside during the pandemic. The retention data is from just one district. Chiang also stressed that the reports show correlational, not causal, links between the change in policies and practices and principal retention.
The school systems in the project were Austin and Fort Worth school districts in Texas; Chesterfield County in Virginia; and Granite school district in Oklahoma.
The districts were represented by 10-15 staff members, from both the school and district level. They were assigned an adviser by the George W. Bush Leadership Institute and met three times a year for workshops as part of a professional learning community. (Those meetings moved online during the pandemic.)
The project reiterates the importance of school leadership, but also shows districts that “it’s not impossible to help principals,” Wicks said.
With millions of unspent COVID-relief dollars still in districts, the project—as well as several in-depth reports over the years—could be useful for districts looking to keep principals, Wicks said.
“They are so essential to the success in your districts … The most critical line managers you can have in an organization,” Wicks said. “They are the leaders closest to the action. This is not a new lesson in leadership about how important it is—whether you are leading a platoon in warfare, you are leading a campus, whether you are leading a medical team—we know how important that leader closest to the action is, and I feel this story revealed over and over again how important that person [is].”
“It is a really hard job and requires a lot of attention and support—and we all benefit when it works right,” Wicks said.