May 2012

Rand study indicates that principal turnover has lasting effects

One in five principals new to a school will leave within the first two years and the school’s academic struggles are likely to continue after they leave, according to new research from the RAND Corporation on behalf of the national nonprofit devoted to developing effective principals for urban schools, New Leaders. The research indicates that principal “churn”—high turnover of principals—is especially detrimental in struggling schools because it appears to have a lasting effect.


The principals studied included those prepared by New Leaders and some who came through other school leadership programs. The data came from New Leaders partner districts: Memphis City Schools; Chicago Public Schools; New York City Public Schools; Washington, DC, Public Schools; Baltimore City Public Schools; and the Oakland, CA, Unified School District.

Of the 519 principals studied, almost 12 percent left in the first year and nearly 11 percent left in the second year. Principals were more likely to leave when test scores declined in their first year, a fact that suggests that at least some of their early career turnover may be driven by performance concerns on the part of district leaders and stakeholders. Principals placed in schools that met adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets in prior years or placed in start-up schools were less likely to leave after one or two years compared to their peers placed in schools that didn’t previously meet their AYP targets.

Of the schools with declining achievement scores under a first-year principal who subsequently left, approximately half experienced clear declines again the next year under another new principal.

The solution to the problem of “churn” is not a one-size-fits-all formula. In some cases, it makes sense to give principals more time to make progress. However, policymakers and districts leaders must also put better principal selection processes in place to find the best candidates to fill positions in struggling schools.

Using time wisely

The study also took a look at which activities and approaches correlated with principal success. Principals focused most or all of their time on the following activities:

  • Promoting data use
  • Observing classrooms
  • Creating a healthy school culture
  • Forming leadership teams
  • Promoting teacher professional development

There was no link between the amount of time a principal spent on each of these activities and student success. All of the principals whose schools saw achievement gains in the first year put a major emphasis on promoting data use, but so did many of the other principals. The principals who most effectively implemented a strategy tended to be successful, as did those that had a high level of staff buy-in. They were more likely to continue at the school for a second year.

Another common element among the successful principals was a high level of staff cohesion. One way principals promoted it was to respect prior practices and school culture. They honored existing school philosophies by incorporating them into their school improvement strategies.

“Study: Principal Turnover Bodes Poorly for Schools,” by Christina A. Samuels, Education Week, March 7, 2012.