School & District Management

Principal Turnover Is a Problem. New Data Could Help Districts Combat It

By Denisa R. Superville — December 19, 2019 6 min read
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Nearly half of new principals leave their schools after three years, and nearly 20 percent leave every year.

Those rates sound alarming, perhaps, but do they tell the whole story of principal turnover in the nation’s schools? Does it matter why principals are leaving and where they are going?

Yes, because districts and states invest millions of dollars on preparing and hiring new principals every year. Principals are second only to teachers when it comes to the impact on student achievement in school.

New research from Bradley Davis, an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Houston, is shedding some light on the reasons why principals leave their original buildings and where they end up in the first five years after they are assigned to lead a school.

Understanding what’s behind the departures could bring critical insights to district leaders and others who are responsible for stemming principal churn.

“It’s not enough to understand the frequency of the turnover, it needs to be prevented,” Davis said.

“[Principals] aren’t just leaving,” he said. “We have folks retiring. We have folks leaving the public school system altogether. We have folks going back to [other] campus-level positions, some folks transfer to a different district, some folks transfer within the district, and some folks are promoted to higher levels.”

Turnover is not necessarily a bad thing, but too much of it leads to instability, Davis said.

“When it’s the wrong kind of turnover, because you are losing good people or you can’t find good people, that’s bad because that impacts student achievement,” he said.

Behind the Turnover Numbers

Looking at data of more than 1,100 Texas principals who entered the profession between the 2008-09 and 2010-11 academic years, Davis found that just one year after placement, more than 30 percent of principals were no longer in the same school, with 10 percent already leaving the state’s public K-12 system altogether. By the second year, about half were no longer leading their original school. There were also significant gender and racial differences.

Turnover looked different depending on whether principals were in elementary or secondary schools. Among his findings:

• Male principals were more likely than female principals to be promoted.
• New principals who were black or Hispanic had a slightly greater likelihood of being demoted than their white peers, but were also more likely to have remained at their original campuses after five years. They were also less likely to have left the states’ public K-12 system after five years.
• New principals were more likely to transfer out of district than within district.
• Middle school and high school principals were more likely to be promoted to the central office. (Middle school and high school principals are also more likely to be male.)
• New principals in urban settings left the state education system altogether at a higher rate and earlier in their careers than rural principals. About 33 percent of new principals assigned to schools in urban districts left the Texas public school system after five years. But, on the flip side, those who remained were more likely than rural principals to be at their original campus after five years (about 19 percent versus 16 percent.)

But the numbers alone can’t explain why turnover looks this way, Davis said.

For example, while it may appear that female principals were “steadier” in their roles because they were more likely than men to be at their original schools several years later, it could also be the result of female principals not having the same promotion opportunities as their male colleagues.

“In a vacuum it sounds like a good thing,” Davis said. “Females are really reliable and that would be great. So, there’s a flip side to it that they could be so systematically passed up for promotion that that’s actually what you’re seeing here: not a sense of reliability, but a sense of diminished opportunity in comparison to that afforded to males.”

Why Does Understanding Turnover Matter?

Principal turnover has both academic and financial costs.

Districts can spend about $75,000 to prepare, hire, and place a principal into the position.

Researchers have also started in recent years to pay more attention to how different types of turnover affect schools and students instead of painting leadership turnover with a broad brush.

“I think it’s easy to not pay attention to the differential forms of turnover when the costs that are associated with it are so immediate and impactful that that takes all your attention, rather than [thinking], ‘Why is this happening and where are folks going?’ ” Davis said. “All the attention and effort go into, ‘We need to address this opening in our system. We need to find somebody for this seat.’ ”

In their own examination of the issue, researchers Brendan Bartanen, Jason Grissom, and Laura K. Rogers found that while principal turnover led to higher teacher turnover and lower math and reading scores in the year after the principal left, the impact varied based on the type of turnover.

Looking at principal data from Tennessee and Missouri, they found that the negative effects on student achievement were larger in schools where the principal was promoted to central office or transferred to another school. There was a short-term dip in student achievement, which rebounded later on, when principals left the education system altogether. And, in the cases where the principals were demoted (to an assistant principal position, for example), the researchers posited that students may have actually benefited from the change in leadership.

Part of their conclusion was that not all turnover is harmful.

“While policymakers rightfully worry about the disruptive effects of leadership instability, our findings imply that, in some cases, the benefits of replacing a low-performing principal outweigh these costs,” they wrote in “The Impacts of Principal Turnover.” “To the extent that district leaders have an adequate supply of potential replacement principals, moving ineffective principals out of struggling schools could help spur improvement.”

The authors urged caution about interpreting the results.

School and District-Level Data

Davis said he hopes his more granular-level findings, which go down to the individual principal level, will help local districts come up with smarter ideas about managing their human capital needs and building a strong pipeline of school leaders.

His findings will also make it possible to create larger questionnaires or other surveys to dig deeper into why educators are leaving and the role that things like salary, job satisfaction, school and district culture play in their decisions to depart, he said.

The district-level data will allow districts leaders to look at patterns, compare their district’s turnover to state averages, and consider the reasons why principals are leaving not just their buildings but their district too, he said.

Davis’s data are specific to Texas, but he said they can be informative to the rest of the country given the diversity of the system’s enrollment and school types.

Davis and April Peters-Hawkins, an associate professor at the University of Houston, plan to apply for grant funding to work with districts on the data and share best practices about human capital and pipeline development.

“We can prevent turnover in a number of ways...But at the end of the day, turnover is inevitable,” Davis said. “Folks leave jobs in every profession; so I think that the larger body of research effort and funding needs to make a shift toward the other end of the research pipeline.”

Coverage of principals and school leadership is supported in part by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at www.joycefdn.org/programs/education-economic. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2020 edition of Education Week as Data May Help Slow the Turnover of Principals

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