Steps to reduce the high costs of principal turnover

Each year, about one quarter (25,000) of the country’s principals leave their schools. Around 50 percent of new principals leave the profession during their third year in the role.
The new report Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover by the School Leaders Network details the consequences of principal attrition:

  • Student achievement will typically drop in math and English Language Arts in the year following a principal vacancy.
  • It can take up to three years for the school to regain its footing under the next principal.
  • Replacing principals is a costly proposition. Conservative estimates show the cost to develop, hire, and place each new principal to be $75,000. Increasing principal retention rates could save U.S. schools millions of dollars every year.
How important is it for schools to have purposeful principal retention efforts? Strong principals have the skills, strategies, practices, and beliefs to establish and maintain highly effective school settings where students can prosper. Student outcomes are improved by that stability: 25 percent of the total school influences on a child’s academic performance are attributed to school leadership.
Keeping leaders is also critical to school improvement efforts. Studies indicate that it may take as long as five years to implement a plan to improve student performance.
According to a 2012 MetLife survey, 84 percent of principals report high stress two or more days per week related to the challenges of the job: long hours, limited authority to make important decisions, and intense pressure to raise achievement. As a result, nearly one third of the principals 500 surveyed was actively considering leaving the profession.
Four key obstacles cause principals to leave:
  1. Workload and extensive managerial tasks prevent more meaningful instructional leadership efforts.
  2. Costly personal tolls, including long hours and work conditions that sometimes challenge their physical and psychological well-being.
  3. Local and state policies that tie principals’ hands in making critical decisions such as hiring, firing, and funding allocation flexibility.
  4. Profound isolation on the job.
So, how do we slow this rapid departure from the profession?
Invest in ongoing professional development for principals. Principals need access to support and training far beyond the first two years on the job to help them manage its expectations and requirements. For their own sake, principals must develop the leadership skills of others so they can distribute leadership tasks on the campus.
Provide opportunities for principals to engage in meaningful networking opportunities. The School Leaders Network, an organization that employs a tightly organized network model with groups of 15 principals meeting monthly throughout the year, has found increased satisfaction and retention among participating principals. In 2014, 98 percent reported that the network met their professional development needs. It’s also helping principals get results. Principals participating in the network met or exceeded the school improvement goals they set.
Expand one-to-one support for principals. Coaching and individual support has historically only been offered to new principals. However, extending coaching beyond the first year is likely to reduce principal isolation and build leadership competencies, two underlying causes of early departure from the profession.
Restructure central office roles and policies. Districts need to develop a more supportive structure that enables principals to learn and grow. The role of the principal supervisor must be redesigned to include leading, one-to-one coaching, and principal peer networks.
Improving an organization is a long and arduous process that requires continued and sustained efforts by highly effective leaders. To achieve this goal, we must invest in strong principal preparation programs and ongoing principal professional development, one-on-one coaching, and networking. That support will help to ensure that districts can create a highly effective learning environment for all students.