Why principal turnover is alarming education experts

Principals site salary, lack of authority and high-stakes accountability as reasons for leaving
By: | May 15, 2020
The principal turnover rate is 21% in higher-poverty districts compared to 17% in lower-poverty districts. (GettyImages.com/Macrovector)The principal turnover rate is 21% in higher-poverty districts compared to 17% in lower-poverty districts. (GettyImages.com/Macrovector)

Even before the coronavirus outbreak and online learning ratcheted up the pressure on school leaders, the growing turnover rates among K-12 principals—particularly in high-poverty schools—was causing concern.

Nearly one in five principals leave their school each year, with the average building leader’s tenure lasting about four years, says a new report from The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute at Stanford University.

A principal departure can often disrupt school improvement plans and other initiatives to raise student achievement, teacher morale and community support, JoAnn Bartoletti, NASSP’a executive director, said during a Facebook Live briefing recorded on Thursday.

“Each time a principal leaves, that process resets,” Bartoletti said. “Repeat that process a few times and teachers and the community become less hopeful and more jaded at the prospect of new leadership.”


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The turnover rate is 21% in higher-poverty districts compared to 17% in lower-poverty districts, the report found.

“As with all challenges in education, principal turnover hits harder in high poverty communities,” Bartoletti said. “In the most vulnerable communities, many high poverty schools measure principal tenure by months, not years, and the students in those schools get the message that ‘no one wants to be here for me. I’m not worth sticking around for.’ ”

The schools that are having the most success during coronavirus closures are those where the principals have built strong relationships with families and the wider community.

“The pandemic has cast a new spotlight on the importance of effective leadership,” Bartoletti said. “We anticipate the factors that contribute to principal attrition will intensify at a time when we need good leadership the most.”

Why principal turnover occurs

A survey in the report found that 42% of principals were considering moving to another school, and the reasons included:

  • Working conditions: Building leaders face heavy workloads and a lack of adequate counselors and other personnel to support students’ emotional well-being.
  • Compensation and financial obligations: Inadequate compensation is exacerbated by debt from principal preparation programs.
  • High-stakes accountability: Evaluation systems do not provide timely feedback to improve principal performance and support student learning.
  • Lack of authority: Some districts do not give principals decision-making authority over their schools’ curriculum or the ability to dismiss poorly performing staff.
  • Inadequate professional development: Building leaders have insufficient time and funding for professional development.

To begin solving these problems, the report urges district leaders to gather more input from principals’ on their personal and building needs. These efforts will likely require offering competitive salaries that include housing subsidies and assistance repaying student loans.

Salary and supports

In the Facebook Live briefing, Superintendent Trevor Greene, of Washington’s Yakima School District, says he and an assistant superintendent visit high-performing principals to discuss job satisfaction and keep them from leaving.


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“It’s important to have a plan and to connect with our leaders to make sure they know that they not only have verbal support but that the support takes the form of some type of action,” Greene says. “We can’t simply say we’re there to support you and not demonstrate that the support is there.”

Districts can use Every Student Succeeds Act funding to provide staff support to cover for principals while they participate in professional development activities.

District leaders should also shift from more punitive forms of evaluation to coaching and mentoring programs that help principals improve their craft, the report suggests.

“I personally believe in the coaching model more so than evaluations,” Principal Gloria Woods-Weeks, of J.D. Clement Early College High School in North Carolina’s Durham Public Schools, said during the Facebook briefing. “You need a process that’s going to give you the immediate feedback. You need that trust.”


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