School & District Management

This State Created a Retention System for Principals. Here’s Why It Worked

By Olina Banerji — February 21, 2024 6 min read
Photos of principals walking in school hallway.
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Education leaders are turning over at a faster pace than before. The superintendent turnover rate increased three percentage points between the 2019-20 and 2022-23 school years, from 14.2 to 17.1 percent.

The effect ripples down, as more principals move into the superintendent’s chair, and more teachers with fewer years of experience land on the path to principalship.

The principal pipeline is greener now. That means states have to think about leadership development as a continuum: Superintendents, principals, and teachers can’t afford to stop learning on the job.

But what does that look like in practice? The Show-Me State thinks it’s landed on the right recipe. In 2016, it launched the Missouri Leadership Development System (MLDS), which combines two years of mentorship, hands-on teaching modules, and regular check-ins over the course of a principal’s career—elevating leadership support from the typically haphazard ongoing training principals receive to a cohesive model.

“Principals can’t make things better for teachers if they aren’t taking care of themselves,” said Paul Katnik, one of the founding members of MLDS, and the assistant commissioner of educator quality at the Missouri education department. “Principal well-being is a focus area for us.”

Missouri’s program is paying dividends

MLDS replaced a previous yearlong leadership development program. While it had great reviews, principals wanted support beyond that one year, to continue their growth as leaders. MLDS’s creators were conscious that any new program had to be much longer, and support principals at every stage in their journey.

The older program wasn’t reaching out to as many principals as the state would’ve liked.

“When we added up the numbers, we realized there were 3,500 principals and assistant principals in the state. Working with a couple hundred each year barely scratched the surface. We weren’t seeing any educational needles, like principal retention, move in the state,” said Katnik.

Launched with a couple hundred school leaders in 2014, MLDS now serves over 1,600 school leaders—both principals and assistant principals—from 400 districts, or about half of Missouri’s school leaders.

Of these leaders, 98 percent have remained in their positions, compared to the 78 percent of Missouri principals who aren’t a part of MLDS, according to an independent evaluation conducted in 2023.

The evaluation also found that 95 percent of the participating principals believed the program helped them see the connection between their own leadership and student learning.

“This is what you want to see happen,” Katnik said. “The supportive network that principals get makes them stick. The better news is that the overall retention rates in the state have edged up.”

Higher retention translates into more consistency for students, Katnik added. “All the research says that is what we should aim for.”

MLDS takes principals through four key stages of development, from aspiring principals still training for the top job to leaders who are fully in control of the cultural and instructional needs of their school. The support that MLDS provides isn’t time-bound either—the principal cohorts formed eight years ago are still meeting and supporting each other.

“In the last four years, the principal’s job has become very isolating and difficult. It’s important that principals know they have colleagues and specialists to support them. Principals must be the lead learner in their schools if they want to set an example for their teachers and students,” Katnik said.

Katnik and his team now want to expand MLDS’ leadership development program to the state’s superintendents. As principals move up the leadership chain, they’ll want MLDS-style support in their new roles. This will, however, inject more complexity into a sprawling statewide operation that spans nine regional hubs and over 500 mentors.

The MLDS structure is distributed but coherent

Katnik is part of a two-member team at the state level, which pushes out the training content to the nine regional hubs and organizes the in-person and networking components, though each hub can tweak its program to suit local needs.

Each hub also selects former principals and superintendents to serve as mentors and specialists. In addition to providing mentors, the regional hubs bring their principal groups together every two months for in-person training.

MLDS’ facilitators are specially trained on adult learning techniques, said Katnik. They focus on steps principals can apply immediately in their jobs.

That’s why a big part of the training is experiential.

“We do culture walks in schools with our cohort of principals. New principals walk around a school together and reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. It also helps them learn more about the culture they’re building in their own schools,” said Vince Powell, a regional MLDS specialist based at the Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

Each level of training also carries custom lessons for principals at different stages of development. In the earlier stages, for instance, there is a deeper emphasis on “critical firsts”: the first PTA, the first faculty meeting, or the first time a new principal meets students.

Powell said leaders are also encouraged to network with each other so they feel less lonely about the challenges they’re all addressing. “We’re all constantly training each other,” said Powell.

The institutional network that props up MLDS

From its inception, MLDS’ creators took a systematic approach to building it.

The first objective was to garner support and insight from superintendents’ associations, teacher associations, school boards and principal associations, and the 23 higher education institutions in Missouri that offer principal-prep programs. In all, this helped create a common language so that new principals graduating from their prep schools into the mentoring program have continuity in their training.

The state also embedded the program in state policies around certification, performance assessment, and micro-credentialing—basically bite-size competencies principals must master—for school leaders, said Katnik, which makes it harder to dismantle.

“Policy helps communicate to principals that this is how we do leadership development in the state. It also ensures that the structure is going to outlast any of us,” said Katnik.

Leadership development programs are often the first cuts districts make when their budgets are strained. MLDS is funded mainly by federal funds and fees. To the largest extent possible, Katnik said, districts aren’t charged for program costs.

In 2022, the Missouri Education department was awarded a 3-year, $10 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education to boost training for principals to meet goals around accelerated learning, staffing classrooms and social-emotional learning.
MLDS also uses 3 percent of the state’s share of federal Title II funding for teachers and principal development.

“We asked superintendents if we could use this money, as it would lessen the pool of their money. Not one said no. That’s why we also do evaluations every year so that they can see their money is being put to good use,” Katnik said.

Eventually, the state would like to include all of its principals. In some districts, up to 80 percent of principals are already participating, and other states, including Alabama, are looking to adapt it.

Winning support at home, though, is still the first goal. Katnik’s pitch to principals who haven’t signed up yet is simple.

“I would ask them to look at our evaluations on whether the program is relevant, if it helps to be a better leader, if it helps them improve teacher practice, whether it helps achieve better student outcomes,” he said. “This could be happening in your school, too, if you join us.”

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