School Principal Turnover Bodes Ill for Schools

RAND Corp. released a study last month looking at the effect principal turnover rates have on school performance.  About 20% of principals new to a school leave within two years, “leaving behind a school that generally continues on a downward academic slide after their departure.”  The report was prepared for New Leaders, a nonprofit group based in New York City that recruits and trains principals for urban districts.

RAND Education gathered data from four sources: a web survey of 65 principals in 2008, 20 case studies of schools led by first-year principals, district-level data on placements for 519 principals, and student achievement test scores.  “First-year principals” includes not just administrators new to the job, but also principals who had administrator experience but were new at a particular school.  The data came from several public school districts, including Memphis, Chicago, New York City, DC, Baltimore and Oakland Unified.

The study found that new principals were more likely to leave their job if test scores dipped during their first year of leadership.  Furthermore, after the principal left, the school tended to continue a downward slope in test scores the following year under another new principal.  Richard Flanary of the National Association of Secondary School Principals emphasizes these findings are unsurprising: “It takes at least three years for a principal to really get the lay of the land and feel comfortable enough to make progress.”  What usually happens, though, is “weaker, inexperienced principals” are brought in, which prompts “an exodus of experienced teachers,” which makes turning a school around that much harder.

The study also looked at how principals allocate their time, to see if there was a connection between their schedules and student achievement.  All of the principals participating in the study said most of their time was spent on promoting data use, observing classrooms, creating a healthy school culture, forming leadership teams, and promoting teacher professional development.  In spite of this, the study did not find a link between this allocation of time and student success.

However, when a principal can spend his or her time on these tasks effectively, the study did observe a rise in student scores.  Principals whose students improved their performance on tests tended to have “some success” or “a great deal of success” in implementing their key strategies.

Also, it appears that high levels of staff cohesion also promote the success of principals (and thus students).  When a principal is new to a school, “principals and teachers reported that principals were more successful in garnering teacher buy-in when they consulted with staff to gain information on perceived strengths and weaknesses at the school.”  Principals who “honored school philosophies by incorporating them into their school-improvement strategies” tended to have more success and see improved student test scores than those who begin by making independent decisions about the direction of the school.

Susan Gates, senior economist for RAND, suggests that principal training programs can help promote successful first years by “developing school leaders as ‘human capital managers.’”

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