Recruitment & Retention

Is This the Beginning of the Principal Exodus?

By Denisa R. Superville — February 16, 2023 8 min read
Illustration of woman standing at exit door
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There are high levels of anxiety that the K-12 workforce at all levels is losing too much talent, but data to prove it have been sparse.

But now, a new brief looking at principal turnover may give the field some evidence to be concerned and to start acting.

About 16 percent of principals left their schools last academic year—the second full school year of the pandemic—according to a survey of school district leaders released Thursday.

The research brief by RAND Corporation, looking at principal and teacher turnover, as well as other staffing issues during the 2021-22 academic year and going into this school year, is one of the first to show an uptick in principals leaving their jobs during the pandemic years.

It comes after multiple polls captured higher-than-normal stress levels during the health crisis and sentiments from school leaders that they were thinking about quitting or planning to quit.

Consecutive surveys of principals by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, released in 2021 and 2022, showed that nearly 40 percent of school leaders planned to leave their jobs in the next few years.

In the latest NASSP survey released last summer, 14 percent said that amid staffing shortages, threats to their safety, and their general well-being, they planned to leave the next year.

Is the ‘Big Quit’ happening?

But do these new data from RAND show that the long-feared and predicted exodus is on the horizon or is finally here?

Not necessarily, said Melissa Kay Diliberti, an assistant policy researcher at RAND and the lead author of the brief, “Educator Turnover Has Markedly Increased, but Districts Have Taken Actions to Boost Teacher Ranks.”

One data point, Diliberti said, does not make a trend.

It’s possible that the one-year spike is simply the result of delayed resignations and retirements from the previous two years as principals put off leaving to wait out the pandemic or for more stability in the economy and the job market.

Data are limited on principal turnover, but early data from two states, Massachusetts and Colorado, showed that rates of turnover fell in the first year of the pandemic and any increase later on was still lower than the last pre-pandemic year.

Diliberti said it’s also possible that the working conditions during the pandemic years became so stressful that principals were leaving as a result.

“I do think that our survey shows evidence of heightened attrition and cause for concern,” she said. “But it’s unclear yet whether this is an aberration, like a one-time problem, or a trend.”

But understanding the reason for the one-year increase is critical, she said.

“That’s important because we might make different decisions on what to do if it’s a trend, versus if it’s a one-time aberration,” she said.

“If it’s a trend, then it hints more toward more systemic problems with working conditions in the profession, than if it’s a one-time aberration, which suggests that it was pent-up frustration from the pandemic that caused the aberration, but that generally we shouldn’t be concerned about the teaching or principal profession more broadly.”

Interpret the data with some caution

For district leaders who are responsible for hiring and retaining principals, Diliberti urged a wait-and-see approach.

“I think it is an implication of our study, although perhaps an unsatisfactory one,” she said. “In the meantime, schooling is continuing and district leaders across the country are dealing with these challenges every day. But I feel like we need to wait and see if this is a systemic problem or just a one-time uptick.”

RAND polled a random sample of 300 leaders from traditional school systems and charter management organizations about staffing issues between Oct. 13, 2022 and Dec. 12, 2022.

It also found principal resignations and retirements to be more acute in high-poverty districts and in rural areas, with district leaders in those school systems reporting turnover at 23 and 21 percent, respectively.

Historically, she said, high-poverty districts have had trouble recruiting and retaining teachers and school leaders compared to more affluent school systems.

“I don’t think it’s surprising to us that high-poverty districts show up as having among the highest attrition rates,” she said, adding that “it could be a combination of historical trends and potentially increased bad working conditions in these high-poverty settings during the pandemic-era that contributed to the unusually high rate of increase.”

RAND urged caution with the rural numbers because those school systems have a smaller number of schools and just one departure can look like a big data swing.

There are a lot of caveats in these numbers. The latest federal data show that pre-pandemic principal turnover was around 16 percent. But those numbers capture school level-data—the movement of principals from a school; it counts a principal moving from one school to another, as well as a principal leaving the profession overall as turnover.

The RAND data reflect principals who retired or resigned—essentially leaving the districts they were working in.

Diliberti said that she’s confident that RAND’s numbers come closer to capturing the exit from districts, but she left room for the possibility that district leaders may also be giving their best guesses in their responses about resignations and retirements.

District leaders, for example, said that principal retirements and resignations were about 3 percent pre-pandemic, which appeared exceedingly low.

“We are a bit skeptical of the pre-pandemic attrition rate,” which she said “was lower than you’d expect.”

But, Diliberti added, the turnover number RAND captured was closer to—though higher than—the “leavers” number reported in the National Center for Education Statistics in the 2016-17 school year, which found that 10 percent of principals left the profession and 6 percent changed schools.

Still, the combined effect of the disruption, both from principals and teachers quitting, can’t be good for schools, she said. Additional RAND surveys of district leaders showed that they planned to increase staffing for this school year—indicating that they were responding to some of the working conditions that were negatively affecting teachers and principals.

David Griffith, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said the RAND survey results “completely jibes with what we are hearing and seeing among our members as well.”

“It’s something we have been trying to raise concern about,” he said. “Teacher turnover and shortages were the immediate top-of-mind crisis, but we could see that the leadership piece was going to be happening.”

A confluence of factors may be leading school leaders to the door, he said. Veteran principals stuck it out through the early days of the pandemic to support their students and their communities, and now that things have somewhat stabilized, they feel they can leave.

“They think, ‘OK, I’ve contributed my part, I’ve done my part, and now I can leave in good conscience,’ ” he said. “I think the other part of that is that leaders are also burned out … They have been on the go for three years. That’s also been an under-appreciated part of the pandemic.”

The increased job demands, staff shortages, and politicization of education have also all contributed to a decline in job satisfaction and job retention, he said.

District officials and policymakers have to figure out how to make the job more attractive to would-be principals, including by offering incentives, providing additional in-school supports, and rethinking the role schools and school leaders play in communities, he said.

Annette D. Anderson, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, was not surprised by the new data.

“It’s actually validating what we are hearing anecdotally in the field,” said Anderson, who is also the deputy director of Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. “The concern is, is this trend going to continue? Is it going to be exacerbated by our lack of understanding of how to stem this turnover and increase retention?”

Many thought an influx of federal COVID relief funds and returning students to school buildings would help schools get back to normal. But many school leaders were just not prepared for what came afterwards, Anderson said.

“The systems themselves haven’t changed—we still have lunch, and we still have the same buildings, and we still have the same academic schedules—the needs in those schools are exponentially increased,” Anderson said.

“We did not anticipate the mental health needs, the school climate needs, the school safety needs. These are ongoing challenges. As I talk to folks anecdotally in the field, they are feeling frustrated, they are feeling unheard, they are feeling exhausted, and they are trying to figure out, ‘Do I hang in there, do I try to ride this out, or do I start looking for other options in this economy?’” she said. “That concerns me because the schools where this is happening, as always, are our most under-resourced schools. We’ve got to figure this out.”

Anderson said policymakers and district leaders must come to terms with the fact that the principalship is no longer a profession where people stay two to three decades.

Thinking about how to staff a position where leaders stick around for shorter periods—such as having an entire school leadership team that stays in a school for about five years before transitioning to a new team—could be an idea to consider.

“We really need to think about these positions as being more transitory, both the classroom positions and the leadership positions, and we need to plan around that,” she said. “We have to have this expectation that people are not going to stay.”

Both leadership preparation programs and policymakers should also rethink their roles—with a shift from how to train school leaders to how to support them once they get in the job.

“Our current higher education course offerings don’t necessarily speak to all of what our school leaders are seeing in terms of safety,” she said. “We still expect them to be instructional leaders when they are spending much of the day doing the work of the security guard—like trying to keep the school itself safe for learning. We have to think about how our evaluation systems can pivot to being more responsive to that.”


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