Recruitment & Retention

Principals May Be Dissatisfied. That Doesn’t Mean They’re Leaving

By Denisa R. Superville — May 23, 2022 4 min read
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While principals may be unhappy about tight budgets and other cost-cutting measures, dissatisfaction with those things may not necessarily make them think about leaving.

But shortages of teachers and substitutes—a big challenge for schools and districts this year— may drive them to quit, according to a new paper published this month.

The paper, by Julia H. Kaufman and Melissa K. Diliberti at the RAND Corporation and Laura S. Hamilton at the Educational Testing Service, is based on survey data from a panel of principals collected in the spring of 2020, when nearly every school in the country halted in-person instruction, and the fall of 2020, when most districts returned to in-person schooling but juggled multiple instructional modes as local COVID-19 infection rates rose and fell.

The paper injects some nuance into the conversation about a looming school leadership exodus. It’s also an opportunity for district leaders to assess working conditions for principals and to provide resources, such as mental health and other supports, to address the stress and dissatisfaction school leaders are voicing, Kaufman said.

Half of the principals surveyed in fall 2020 said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they weren’t as enthusiastic about the job as they were when they first started, and 43 percent said they’d quit for one that paid more, according to the paper. Another 27 percent said the “stress and disappointment” weren’t worth it. The numbers from Kaufman’s panel exceeded those from a federal survey from the 2015-16 school year. And about 21 percent of principals in Kaufman’s research said they planned to quit when the 2020-21 school year ended.

Will the mounting discontent lead principals to quit over time?

“That’s the $1 million question,” Kaufman said, noting the connection between people being dissatisfied with their jobs and actually leaving.
“If you were more dissatisfied at your job, you probably wouldn’t be doing your job as well. As their dissatisfaction is mounting, [principals] probably aren’t as able to do their jobs as well.”

Intention versus reality

Various polls have tapped into the sentiment that pandemic conditions and political and social divisions over the last two years may push principals out of the profession. Thirty-eight percent of principals who responded to a National Association of Secondary School Principals survey released in December 2021 said they planned to leave the job over the next three years.

But there are indications that the K-12 education sector has not experienced an employee exodus, even as schools struggle to find workers. National data are a few years off.

Data from two states, which were analyzed by Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, show that, at least in 2020-21, the first full year of the pandemic, principal turnover was lower than the last pre-pandemic school year and the national principal turnover average.

In Massachusetts, principal turnover actually fell to 12.8 percent in 2020-21 from 19 percent in 2018-19.

In Colorado, principal turnover increased to 15.8 percent in the 2020-21 school year after falling in 2019-20. It was still below the turnover rate for the 2018-19 school year.

Chad Aldeman, the policy director at Edunomics Lab, who analyzed the state data on principal turnover and has also researched teacher attrition during the pandemic, said the same thing could be true for both principals and teachers: they’re stressed but not necessarily leaving their jobs in historic numbers.

Aldeman also noted that current data do not capture whether turnover is increasing this year. Still, he said, rising dissatisfaction “is not good news.”

“It might be a problem we need to address for the mental health of the professionals; but it may not necessarily lead to the same rate of turnover as what the surveys are picking up,” he said.

Scarcity leads to dissatisfaction

The researchers thought principals’ needs would decrease as schools moved back to in-person teaching in fall 2020. Instead, they found that principals’ self-reported needs grew across the board as they were asked about things like high-quality materials and teacher training.

And, with the exception of teacher vacancies, an increase in perceived need between the spring semester and the fall semester corresponded with an increase in job dissatisfaction. Principals leading remote schools expressed more disenchantment with the job.

While budget constraints increased principals’ dissatisfaction, they were not likely to predict a principal’s intent to leave.

But principals’ reported lack of resources—for more social-emotional learning materials, for example—and teacher and substitute shortages did correspond with intention to leave.

“If you ask principals if they have a lower school budget, they’d say, ‘yes, that’s frustrating.’ But it doesn’t drive them to the point of like, ‘I’m leaving.’” Kaufman said. “But teacher and substitute shortages in particular did predict intention to leave.”

There may be other factors at play in those schools where shortages have been acute, she said.

“It kind of stands to reason that when you have teacher or substitute shortages there might be something else going on in the school that’s predicting those shortages,” Kaufman said.

Understanding the underlying reasons for principal’s unhappiness and addressing those causes— including providing mental health supports for principals, rethinking talent pipelines, and revamping how substitutes are hired and supported within schools and districts—could go a long way in staving off a potential exodus, Kaufman said.

Continued and unaddressed discontent could push principals toward the exit, Kaufman said

“That’s always been the takeaway for us: That this could still be coming,” Kaufman said. “I think what we need to gauge now is what does dissatisfaction look like now to see if it’s still really high. If it’s still really high then I agree that this departure of principals is definitely going to happen.”

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