How school leaders can better predict which principals are going to leave

You have much less time to prepare high-quality replacements if you don't know who's leaving.
By: | April 15, 2022
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Can principal vacancies be predicted? Perhaps the bigger question for administrators is, “Why aren’t you trying to predict them?” After all, if you don’t know who or how many principals might be leaving each year, you have much less time to prepare your most qualified replacements.

There are two key steps to better forecasting how many open positions you’ll have to fill: data and conversations, says Lindsay Whorton, president of the nonprofit The Holdsworth Center, a K-12 leadership development nonprofit based in Texas. “The time where you can do something about a vacancy is not after it happens, it is in the years leading up to it,” Whorton says. “That’s where you have an opportunity to be identifying, developing, and investing in strong successors who will be ready to move into that role.”

Whorton and her team are concerned that succession planning around principals is a key task that may get overlooked in many districts. Pre-pandemic, the organization was already focused on principal turnover, which has only become a larger problem as districts try to recover. A wave of surveys has revealed significant burnout among overworked principals after two years of disruptions and uncertainty, with one report even warning that a “mass exodus” lies ahead.

But the challenges of COVID may not only lead to increased turnover. They may also have soured some educators on the idea of moving up the K-12 ladder.

“All of us should be concerned about the way that COVID may have dampened people’s aspirations to move into these difficult leadership roles,” Whorton says. “And the reality is you can’t know that about people unless you ask them.”

When working with districts, Holdsworth and her team start with the data, which can be a challenge for larger school systems that tend to store information in several different platforms. Leaders should form a team to bring together the important data points:

  • Retirement eligibility
  • How long principals have been in their roles
  • Principal performance data
  • School performance data
  • Running three- to five-year averages of vacancies
  • Teacher retention and turnover
  • School culture and climate data

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COVID, however, may scramble some of these trends. “We all have to acknowledge that we don’t know the degree to which our historical trends are going to be predictive in the future and we don’t even know if what we’re seeing this year, over the last two years, is going to be predictive of the future,” Whorton says. Still, all of the data can inform conversations administrators are having with principals about their career goals and with the teachers and other educators aspiring to move into leadership roles. It’s also an opportunity for leaders to encourage teachers and others who may not be considering the principalship.

“The strength of the person who moves into that principal vacancy is going to be hugely significant, both for the students on that campus and the learning opportunities that they have, and also the district’s ability to retain their best teachers, because we know that principles are critical,” Whorton says.