By Micela Leis
Principal turnover is one of the most daunting challenges facing U.S. public schools.
Effective principals positively influence school culture, teacher instructional quality and retention, and student social-emotional and academic outcomes1. Moreover, successful principals impact teacher effectiveness, which influence both students’ test scores and their future earning potential2.
Yet, one quarter of the country’s principals (25,000 individuals) leave their school each year and over 70% of hired principals will leave their school within 5 years3. This “churn” of principal turnover and replacement impacts students4. Students have lower reading and math scores in the year after a principal leaves their school, and these negative effects are exacerbated in schools that experience multiple years of principal turnover5.
Hiring a new principal is expensive and costly, for both districts and students.
Costs to develop, hire, and onboard a new principal range between $36,850 and $303,000; with conservative estimates placing the average cost at about $75,0006. In addition to the immediate and direct cost of hiring a new principal, it is important to consider the long-term costs of principal churn on student earning potential and subsequent school funding. The School Leaders Network (2014) found that a 10% reduction in principal turnover has the potential to increase a single student’s earnings by $30,024.07.
Given the value of an effective principal and the expense of hiring a new principal, identifying how to reduce principal turnover is of utmost importance.
Tenacity is needed to persist in the principal role.
One of the main reasons that principal turnover is so high is due to principals’ perceptions that they are not making a difference for the students in their school. This feeling is often the result of having to deal with obstacles such as the daunting workload, all-encompassing managerial tasks, and social isolation of the role7. Principal tenacity and persistence can be improved by lessening the isolation and frustrations of the principalship8. Districts can support principals by providing effective professional development programs that include ongoing development in skills essential to the principalship, engaging principals in meaningful network opportunities, and providing one-on-one support9.
Principal Leadership Development programs can improve tenacity.
The role of the principal is a leadership position. However, many principal training programs focus exclusively on technical skills and fail to provide adequate leadership development. The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) provides professional development programs for principals with a strong leadership development focus. The programs include a cohort-based model, with the same group of principals coming together multiple times over a year to focus on leading themselves, leading with others, and leading in their organization. These programs also include individualized executive coaching sessions, content related books and readings, and leadership tools.
One of CCL’s flagship principal leadership programs is the Margaret Waddington Institute for School Leadership (Waddington) program. Waddington is funded by an endowment from the Estate of Dr. Margaret Waddington, which has allowed CCL to deliver it free of charge to all principals and educational leaders in Vermont in partnership with the Vermont Principals’ Association (VPA) since 2016. Nearly half of Vermont’s principals have participated in Waddington at this point, providing a great dataset for exploring the efficacy of CCL’s leadership development program for improving principal tenacity and persistence.
Tenacity and persistence can be increased by improving principal’s feelings of psychological well-being and reducing the isolation of the role10. Based on pre- and post- surveys from the 119 principals and school leaders who have completed the full Waddington program to this point, we found11:
- There were statistically significant increases in participant’s psychological well-being (feelings of efficacy, hope, and resiliency).
- Isolation was reduced through strengthening collaboration networks with principals in other schools and by building relationships with teachers in their schools (as measured through improving school Climate and Teacher-Principal Trust, as reported by teachers within the schools pre- and post- program).
Although teachers did not participate in the program, they were asked to report on any changes they had noticed in their principal over the previous year, offering an understanding of impact beyond self-report. The open-ended responses from over 750 teachers in the schools of participating principals also suggests that Waddington has had an impact on the principals’ likelihood to persist in their role.
Teachers noted positive change in their principal in 81% of the schools (n = 61; results were aggregated to the school level). The following graph shows the most common reasons for this positive change followed by definitions for each category.
- Builds relationships: More focused on building personal relationships with teachers; sees teachers as individuals and takes time to get to know them; includes being better at giving and/or receiving feedback and being more focused on teacher resilience/self-care.
- Empowers teachers: Gets more teacher voices/input; distributes work and leadership; supportive of teachers in their role.
- More confident: More willing to make decisions/act.
- Better communicator: Better at communicating; respond more regularly; more transparency.
- More focused on positive school climate: Includes information about positive atmosphere or better school systems; includes focusing on social-emotional outcomes for students and/or equity.
Do our Principal Leadership Development programs combat the churn?
These findings suggest that participating in the Waddington principal leadership development program increases principal tenacity and persistence, and thus could lead to less principal turnover. However, we wanted to understand if this was actually the case. Did participating in Waddington actually slow the churn?
Waddington was offered for free to all principals in Vermont in 2016, and about 40% of the public-school principals currently serving at that time chose to participate in the program. While self-selection may have played a role, there were no differences in 2016 between principals who chose to participate and principals who chose not to participate in terms of average time served as a principal in their current school (4.4 years) or average time served as a principal in the state (5.2 years). As of 2020 (4 years later), 71% of Waddington principals are still in their same schools compared to 48% of non-Waddington principals (a cost saving of $1,425,00012 for the State of Vermont). Additionally, 91% of Waddington participants are still principals in Vermont compared to 56% of non-Waddington participants. Therefore, results from our first four years of program data show that Waddington principals had significantly less turnover than principals who did not participate in Waddington.
Key Takeaway: Invest in principal leadership development to improve student outcomes.
School reform is an issue at the forefront of our national consciousness13. A strong and effective principal is necessary for positive school transformation to occur14. Districts need to focus on supporting excellent principals in order to keep them in their schools. One way to do this is to provide professional development focused specifically on leadership. Though leadership development can be a costly endeavor in terms of both time and money, the results are well-worth the initial costs.
1 Leithwood, K., Louis-Seashore, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How Leadership Influences Student Learning. Review of Research. Ontario: The Wallace Foundation.
Seashore-Louis, K., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. & Anderson, S. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.
2 Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). The long-term impacts of teachers: Teacher value-added and student outcomes in adulthood (No. w17699). National Bureau of Economic Research.
3 Fuller, E., Young, M. (Summer 2009). Tenure and retention of newly hired principals in Texas. Texas High School Project: Leadership Initiative Issue Brief 1. Department of Educational Administration. The University of Texas at Austin. Austin. Retrieved from http://ucea.org/storage/principal/IB 1_Principal Tenure and Retention in Texas of Newly Hired Principals_10_8_09.pdf
4 School Leaders Network (2014). Churn: The high cost of principal turnover. Retrieved from http://connectleadsucceed.org/sites/default/files/principal_turnover_cost.pdf
5 Branch, G., Hanushek, E., & Rivkin, S. (2009). Estimating principal effectiveness. Calder, The Urban Institute. Washington, D.C.; Branch, G., Hanushek, E., & Rivkin, S. (2013). School leaders matter: Measuring the impact of effective principals. [Web]. Education Next, 13(1).
6 School Leaders Network (2014).
7 Johnson, L. (2005). Why principals quit. Principal. National Association of Elementary School Principals.
8 Johnson, L. (2005).
9 School Leaders Network (2014).
10 National Association of Elementary Schools Principals. (2013). Making the case: Principal mentoring. In The Education Alliance at Brown University (Ed.): Brown University.
11 Leis, M., Cameron, G., Reinecke, S., & Leisman, T. (2019, April). Leveraging Leadership Preparation Development for School Change. Paper presented at the American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Conference, Toronto, Canada.
12 This figure was calculated in the following way: There were 205 non-Waddington principals in 2016. 98 of these principals were in their same schools in 2020. This means that 48% of non-Waddington principals left their school over a 4-year time period. There were 82 Waddington principals in 2016. If we assume that these principals would follow the same turnover rate as non-Waddington principals if Waddington had not existed, then we would expect that 39 of these principals would still be in their schools in 2020. However, 58 Waddington principals were still in their schools in 2020. Therefore 19 less principals needed to be hired than expected. If you use the conservative estimate of $75,000 as the cost of onboarding a new principal, that is a cost savings of (19×750,000) $1,425,000 over 4 years.
13 Tschannen-Moran, M., & Gareis, C. R. (2015). Faculty trust in the principal: An essential ingredient in high performing schools. Journal of Educational Administration, 53(1), 66-92.
14 Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E. M., Luppescu, S., & Easton, J. Q. (2010) Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.