While much attention has been paid to teacher turnover over the past few decades, the amount of principals leaving their schools—or the profession altogether—is equally staggering.

Almost 1 in every 5 principals leave their schools each year, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2018. In 2016–17, the average tenure of a principal in the same school building was four years. Just over 1 in 10 principals (11 percent) have been at the same school for at least a decade. Research also suggests that principals at middle level and high schools are less likely to stay in the same building for long periods of time, as are leaders in less affluent communities.

NASSP and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) have released two of three research briefs in a series this year that focus on the challenge of principal turnover. The problem is costly—on average, districts spend $75,000 to replace a principal, according to Wallace Foundation research. The impact on schools facing continuous leadership transitions, however, may be more significant.

“You’ve got to reboot those schools every time that happens,” LPI president and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond said during a session at the 2019 National Principals Conference.

However, new research shows that the turnover issue can be understood, addressed, and—most importantly—improved. A six-year, $85 million effort by the Wallace Foundation to build principal pipelines in six school districts is showing that improving training and support for school leaders is relatively inexpensive—and has a real-world impact that goes beyond continuity to promote measurable gains in student achievement.

“We found no other comprehensive districtwide initiatives with demonstrated positive effects of this magnitude on achievement,” say the authors of a RAND research report on the principal pipeline initiative.

Supporting New Leaders

Like teachers, principals are most likely to leave the profession in the first few years of their career. That’s why building pipelines which strategically prepare, hire, and support new principals has emerged as a powerful strategy for districts seeking to improve leadership capacity.

The Wallace Foundation’s initiative affirms the idea that building principal pipelines is a realistic—and highly effective—strategy. The six-year Principal Pipeline Initiative focused on six school districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC; Denver; Gwinnett County, GA; Hillsborough, FL; New York City; and Prince George’s County, MD. Each developed leader standards, developed pre-service preparation opportunities for school leaders, changed hiring and placement practices, and developed on-the-job induction, evaluation, and support programs.

System-Level Impact

The RAND evaluation of the initiative found that the pipelines were feasible, affordable, and effective. Each participating district was able to create and scale pipeline activities. On average, districts spent $42 per student on pipeline activities—less than 0.5 percent of their overall budget. And the pipeline programs succeeded in supporting new leaders and stemming turnover.

New principals in participating districts were 5.8 percent more likely to stay in the schools for two years and nearly 8 percent more likely to stay for at least three years than their counterparts in districts without the pipelines, according to the RAND research. And the impact on student learning affirms both the value of the pipeline programs and the overall importance of school leaders on achievement.

Within the six participating districts, RAND found statistically significant differences in student reading and math achievement between schools whose principals were part of the pipeline initiative and those which were not in the same states—more than 6 percentile points in reading and nearly 3 in math three years after the new school leaders were hired through the pipeline programs on average, with some variation within and among individual districts.

The pipeline initiative also affirms that idea that building leadership capacity within a district helps all principals lead. Jody Spiro, the director of Wallace’s education leadership program, told Education Week earlier this year, ” All principals in the district … benefitted from having clear leader standards. They benefitted from these more rigorous hiring procedures, from being better matched to their schools, from having evaluation systems that the research tells us the principals perceived as fair and useful. It became bigger than … a ‘training program’ for principals. It became a whole system approach.”

To learn more about the Principal Pipeline Initiative, visit The Wallace Foundation website.

To read the first two NASSP and LPI research briefs on principal turnover, visit www.nassp.org/turnover.The third brief—which will incorporate results of a principal turnover survey from current principals—will be released later this year, along with final comprehensive report with policy recommendations.

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