Strong and stable school leadership is critical for success in schools across the nation. The duties of the principal are many and varied. Principals, for example, can oversee instruction, purchase curricular materials and supplies, and provide professional learning and supports for teachers.

Unfortunately, many schools do not have stable principal leadership.

In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tenure of principals in a given school across the United States was four years as of 2016–17. 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.

To examine the extent of conditions that often contribute to principal turnover, the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) collaborated to develop this national principal study. In this report, NASSP and LPI reveal key findings, relevant survey data, and policy recommendations for lawmakers—plus, they place this research initiative into the context of the broader educational landscape.

The Research

In 2019, LPI surveyed a stratified random sample of 424 secondary school principals selected to represent U.S. secondary schools by community type, size, percentage of students of color, and percentage of students eligible for the federal lunch program. These principals were also affiliated with NASSP as members, or as school leaders with an active chapter of the National Honor Society or National Junior Honor Society, student leadership programs administered by NASSP.

The NASSP-LPI survey asked these principals about their intentions to stay in the principalship, as well as the extent to which they experience conditions that other research has shown to be related to principal retention and turnover.

Key Findings

Survey and focus group responses reflected national concerns about principal turnover.

  1. Working conditions and district supports related to working conditions emerged as concerns.
  2. Principals’ compensation and financial obligations were related to their mobility plans.
  3. High-stakes accountability systems and evaluation practices can discourage some principals.
  4. A lack of decision-making authority is a concern for some principals.
  5. Many principals faced obstacles to professional learning opportunities.
  6. Larger percentages of principals serving in high-poverty schools and cities reported some of the circumstances associated with principal turnover.

Local and Federal Policy Implications

To be responsive to these findings and to better prepare, develop, support, and retain effective school principals, policymakers at the local level should:

  • Support evidence-based principal professional development through Title I, Part A funds.
  • Support improved working conditions by providing principals with the resources they need to hire adequate administrative staff and student support personnel.
  • Provide principals with appropriate autonomy in decision making through Peer Assistance and Review programs that provide mentors for struggling teachers to help improve their practice and by providing due process if a teacher’s practice does not improve.

Policymakers at the federal level should:

  • Create or expand programs that help underwrite the cost of high-quality principal preparation—for example, provide funding to cover the cost of preparation programs in exchange for a commitment to serve in a high-poverty or rural school.
  • Compensate principals adequately and equitably within the state and across districts and provide additional financial incentives for principals who commit to working in high-need schools.
  • Support local efforts to prepare and develop effective school leaders by increasing state and federal investments in leader preparation programs and their high-quality professional development, such as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Every Student Succeeds Act.
  • Support local efforts to improve whole child and student supports by providing sufficient state and federal funding under Title IV, the Student Success and Academic. Enrichment Grant program.

Why Does Principal Retention Matter?

Research suggests that principals are the second most important school-level factor associated with student achievement—right after teachers. Numerous studies that associate increased principal quality with gains in high school graduation rates and student achievement bolster this claim. Further, turnover in school leadership can result in a decrease in student achievement.

By turning our focus toward keeping more of the nation’s effective principals in schools, we have the potential to increase teacher quality and retention, enhance school climates, and improve student outcomes nationwide.

For an in-depth view at the full NASSP-LPI research initiative—including full survey results, expanded data and analysis—download your copy of the research report today.

Read the research report now.