More than 1 in 6 principals leave their school each year. This kind of disruption in school leadership impedes school improvement, leads to an increase in teacher turnover, and has a negative effect on student achievement. The problem is worse in high-poverty schools, where 1 in 5 principals leave each year. This inequity exacerbates racial and socioeconomic disparities in education.

Understanding why principals leave is central to developing and implementing strategies to reduce or even reverse turnover and advance educational equity. That is the goal of a new joint research initiative by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and NASSP. In March, LPI published the first study in that initiative, Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover: A Review of the Research, which identifies the causes and impact of principal turnover nationwide.

According to the study, in 2016–17, the national average tenure of principals in schools was only four years. However, this number masks considerable variation, with 35 percent of principals staying at their school for less than two years, and only 11 percent of principals staying at their school for 10 years or more.

The study identifies several strategies state and district policymakers can adopt to address the root causes of leadership turnover:

  • Provide High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities: Research shows that access to high-quality preparation programs, principal internships, and mentoring significantly reduces the likelihood that principals will leave their schools. As principals are better prepared and more able to handle the complex job, they see stronger results, feel more efficacious, and hence are more likely to stay.
  • Improve Working Conditions: Working conditions, including heavy workloads and multiple responsibilities without adequate district or in-school support, can contribute to a principal’s decision to exit the position. Improving working conditions can reduce the turnover rate.
  • Ensure Adequate and Stable Compensation: Some principals consider salary when deciding to stay at a school. Studies have shown that principals often move to a different school with a higher salary. Moreover, inadequate differentials between teachers’ and principals’ pay may cause credentialed, promising leaders to avoid the principalship.
  • Support Decision-Making Authority in School Leadership: Lack of decision-making authority on topics related to personnel and budgets can leave many principals feeling constrained and ineffective. Policies that enable principals to have greater decision-making input on policies that impact their school community can lead to greater retention.
  • Eliminate Punitive Accountability Systems: Reforming high-stakes accountability systems for principals is another promising strategy for reducing turnover. Some accountability systems include harsh consequences like reduction in pay or school closure based on student test scores. Policies that impose such consequences make it difficult to hire and retain qualified leaders, especially in high-need, under-resourced schools.

There is federal support for this important work. The Every Student Succeeds Act provides federal funding that states can use to support principal retention. Under Title II, Part A, states may designate up to 5 percent of their Title II, Part A allocation for leadership development, and an additional 3 percent exclusively for leadership investments. Additionally, Title I, Part A School Improvement requires that states set aside 7 percent of Title I, Part A funds for evidence-based strategies to improve low-performing schools; these improvement efforts can include interventions to strengthen school leadership. States can also apply for competitive federal grants like the School Leader Recruitment and Support Program to recruit, support, and develop high-quality leaders, and the Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program to support human capital management systems.

NASSP and LPI will release the second study in this initiative in July 2019 at NASSP’s National Principals’ Conference. It will include analysis of Department of Education principal survey data to identify principal attributes (like years of experience) and school characterstics (like urbanicity) that contribute to turnover. The initiative will produce a total of four studies, with two more to be released in fall 2019.

Read more about the causes and impact of principal turnover in the first brief from LPI and NASSP.

About LPI

LPI is a nonprofit organization that conducts and communicates high-quality research to improve education practice and policy. Working with policymakers, researchers, educators, community groups, and others, the institute seeks to advance evidence-based policies that support empowering and equitable learning for each and every child.

Kathryn Bradley is a research and policy associate on LPI’s Deeper Learning team. Prior to joining LPI, Bradley worked as a researcher for Communities In Schools, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students as they aim to achieve their academic, career, and personal goals. There, she utilized mixed methods to examine the supports, services, and outcomes associated with college and career readiness. Before embarking on her research career, Bradley taught fourth grade in her hometown of New Haven, CT, where she also designed and taught a social justice issues course for high school students.

Bradley holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in history and Africana studies from The George Washington University. She also holds a master’s degree in teaching from Sacred Heart University.

Stephanie Levin is a member of LPI’s Equitable Resources and Access team, where she is working to translate research on school finance and resource allocation to inform practice and policy. She also conducts research to better understand inequities across schools and identify remedies to redress these inequities.

Levin has over 10 years of experience as a mixed-methods researcher and project manager focusing on educational equity; school finance and budgeting; the impact of federal, state, and district policies on teacher effectiveness and student outcomes; and teacher and school leader professional learning opportunities. Most recently, she designed and led studies evaluating the implementation and impact of teacher professional learning opportunities. Prior to her work in education research, Levin was a consultant, policy analyst, and budget analyst addressing issues that shape the experiences of children and families in urban settings.

Stephanie received a doctorate in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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