Why should states focus on improving school leader retention?
Great principals can have a tremendous impact on student and teacher success. But the job of leading a school has become increasingly complex, and surveys of principals indicate that they’re feeling the pressure. Not surprisingly, principal turnover is a significant problem across the country.
Principal turnover is a significant problem
About 50% of newly hired middle school principals remained at the same school for three years.
Only 30% of newly hired high school principals remained at the same school for three years.
In practical terms, this means the average newly hired high school principal will not see their freshman class graduate high school (Fuller, “Examining Principal Turnover,” 2012).
Principal turnover has negative consequences, especially for high-need schools
- High principal turnover can lead to higher teacher turnover and negatively impact student achievement, an acute problem at lower-achieving and high-poverty schools.
- Frequent principal churn—whether from one school to another or out of the profession altogether—undermines efforts to produce sustained school improvements and to implement meaningful reform.
- It takes about three years to see the positive effects of a new principal; progress stalls during transitions between strong leaders.
- Replacing principals, including recruiting and onboarding, is expensive—conservative estimates put the cost at $75,000 each—and it’s not uncommon for large urban districts to replace over 15 principals each year.
Of course, not all principal turnover is bad; districts should use thoughtful recruitment strategies to replace low-performing principals with high performers. But it’s unlikely that states can improve education for students without ensuring that the best school leaders are retained in the schools that need them the most.
Why do school leaders leave?
Although new principals at high-poverty and low-achieving schools often leave for opportunities to lead schools with better conditions, principal turnover occurs for reasons other than the difficulty of the job, such as:
- The role of school leader often comes with substantial on-the-job isolation.
- Local and state policies often limit the principal’s decision-making authority related to personnel and funding.
- Principal compensation is usually tied to experience and education, as well as the size and type of school—but is not based on performance.
- The difference in pay between veteran teachers and school principals does not reflect the increased responsibility and accountability.
- Principals often lack meaningful development, coaching, and advancement opportunities.