School & District Management

Study: Principal Turnover Bodes Poorly for Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — March 02, 2012 4 min read
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About 20 percent of principals new to a school leave that posting within one or two years, leaving behind a school that generally continues on a downward academic slide after their departure, according to a study released last week by the RAND Corp. on behalf of New York City-based New Leaders.

“The underlying idea is that churn is not good,” said Gina Schuyler Ikemoto, an author of the report and the executive director of research and policy development for New Leaders, formerly known as New Leaders for New Schools. The nonprofit group recruits and trains principals to work in urban districts.

However, the answer is not as simple as just allowing or encouraging those principals to remain in place, she said. “In some cases, the solution is to give folks more time,” Ms. Ikemoto said, but policymakers should make sure they’re selecting the very best candidates for those positions from the start.

RAND Education, a unit of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., gathered its data from four sources: a Web-based survey of 65 principals administered in 2008, a set of 20 case studies of schools led by first-year principals; district-level data on principal placements for 519 principals, and student-level achievement test scores. For the purposes of this research, first-year principals included professionals in their first school leadership position, as well as principals who were new to a school but may have been principals elsewhere.

Broad Mix

The mix of principals studied included those who came through New Leaders training, as well as those who attended other leadership programs. The data came from districts that partner with New Leaders: Memphis, Tenn.; Chicago; New York City; the District of Columbia; Baltimore; and the Oakland Unified School District in California.

The study found that of the 519 principals studied, almost 12 percent left in the first year and nearly 11 percent left in the second year. Principals in schools that had met their adequate yearly progress achievement targets in the years prior to their placement were less likely to leave, as were principals placed in startup schools.

New principals were more likely to leave if test scores dipped in their first year. And when those schools hired new principals, they usually continued to underperform in the following year, the report notes.

Richard A. Flanary, the senior director of the office of professional development for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he was not surprised about the “churn” rate of new principals, nor that the turnover was correlated with low student test scores.

“It takes at least three years for a principal to really get the lay of the land, and feel comfortable enough to make progress,” Mr. Flanary said. But what happens more often, he said, is that weaker, inexperienced principals are brought into a school, prompting an exodus of experienced teachers, making the job of turning around a struggling school that much harder.

The survey also delved into how leaders allocated their time to see if there was a connection between how much time they spent on certain tasks and student achievement. All the principals said they focused most or all of their time on: promoting data use, observing classrooms, creating a healthy school culture, forming leadership teams, and promoting teacher professional development.

However, there seemed to be no link between how much time a principal spent on those areas and student success. But student test scores rose if principals were able to spend their time on those tasks effectively, the report says.

Effective Use of Time

For example, the case studies note that principals whose schools ultimately experienced gains had “some success” or “a great deal of success” in implementing their key strategies.

“It seems like principals know what to do, but we need to do a better job teaching them how to do it well,” Ms. Ikemoto said.

The results also point to a common element among successful principals: high levels of staff cohesion. One way to promote that cohesion is to respect prior practices and culture, the study suggests.

“Rather than changing everything or making independent decisions, principals and teachers reported that principals were more successful in garnering teacher buy-in when they consulted with staff to gain information on perceived strengths and weaknesses at the school. Beyond the initial diagnosis, these principals honored school philosophies by incorporating them into their school-improvement strategies,” it notes.

Susan M. Gates, another co-author and a senior economist for RAND, said that principal training programs should focus on developing school leaders as “human capital managers.”

“The principal can have great ideas, be great at data-driven decisionmaking, great even at instruction,” she said. But helping the staff buy into major changes is a subtle skill, she added. “You have to be able to get people on board with your vision.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study: Churn in the Principal’s Office Bodes Poorly for Success of Schools

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