Research has shown that having a strong school leader matters in terms of whether teachers stay in their jobs. But a new study finds that effective principals are not only skilled at keeping high-performing teachers—they also strategically don’t retain the low performers.
“Principals play a large role in setting the culture and climate of the school,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, and an author of the study. “The role of principals in teachers’ work decisions is big.”
The study, which examines six years of data from Tennessee, found that more effective principals see lower rates of teacher turnover on average, but that applies to high-performing teachers. In other words, the school’s lowest-performing teachers, as measured by classroom-observation scores, are more likely to leave when the building has a highly rated principal.
Grissom said the evidence suggests that effective principals are not firing the low performers—instead, they’re using less-formal means, like counseling out.
“More-effective leaders are more capable of having conversations with teachers [like], ‘Maybe this is not the right fit for you; maybe your talents would be better at another school or even another profession,’” he said.
The data used in this study span the 2011-12 to 2016-17 school years, and use state teacher-evaluation data to classify teachers as high or low performers. The evaluation system includes both classroom-observation scores and value-added scores, which measure a teacher’s contribution to student learning.
Teachers who receive low observation scores in their evaluations are more likely to leave schools with effective principals regardless of whether they have high or low value-added scores. Grissom said this suggests that principals find classroom observations more meaningful—they conduct the observations themselves, and the scores are accessible throughout the school year, compared to value-added scores which aren’t available until the next school year.
Grissom has previously found that principals are reluctant to give teachers low scores on formal evaluations with stakes attached, in part because they want to maintain good relationships with their teachers. This new study raised the concern that effective principals were assigning lower observation scores to teachers whom they wanted to push out, regardless of the teachers’ actual performance. However, the researchers conducted several analyses to rule out that possibility and confirm that effective principals are able to encourage turnover among less effective teachers.
To determine principal effectiveness, researchers considered ratings from the state’s principal-evaluation system, as well as survey results from teachers on the leadership quality in their schools.
“School leadership is really complex. There are a lot of different behaviors that a school leader needs to engage in on a day-to-day basis,” Grissom said, pointing to parent engagement, school safety, and instructional leadership.
Effective principals, he said, are available for instructional coaching and feedback, and they plan meaningful professional development.
Past studies have found that working conditions are a key factor in whether a teacher stays in his or her school building. And a 2016 study suggests that the way a teacher sees her principal can shape the way she perceives conditions in the school, regardless of what else is going on.
Grissom said strategic retention patterns are only there when the principal stays in the school from year to year. “If the next year is a different principal, all bets are off,” he said.
And school context matters, too. Suburban schools are better positioned to strategically retain teachers—rural schools, for instance, might have fewer options for replacing low performers.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.