Recent debates about ensuring all students have effective teachers have largely centered on how to recruit, prepare, evaluate, and—more recently—develop them. But these efforts to “build a better teacher” will only succeed if we also succeed in retaining the teachers in which we’ve made these investments. And recent research strengthens the case that there’s one individual who is key to doing so: the school principal.
Nationally, about 1 in 6 teachers leave their schools annually, although attrition is generally more of an issue in low-performing schools. To be certain, some turnover can be beneficial, such as when teachers aren’t a good fit. But consistently high rates of turnover are detrimental for schools and their students, leading to poor staff morale and negatively impacting student outcomes. It’s also costly: states spend $1-2 billion on teacher turnover each year.
In order to help address this problem, researchers have explored a variety of factors that underlie teacher turnover. Of these factors, school working conditions—such as quality of school leadership and staff cohesion—appear to matter most in whether a teacher decides to stay or leave a school.
In a recent study, Susan Burkhauser of Loyola Marymount University builds on this literature by attempting to assess how much principals influence teachers’ perceptions of their schools’ working conditions. By examining schools that experienced a change in principal, Burkhauser attempts to isolate how much of the school-to-school variation in teachers’ ratings of four school environment areas can be attributed directly to the principal.
Burkhauser estimates that the “effect of increasing principal quality by one adjusted standard deviation in perceptions of teacher time use has the equivalent estimated effect of a decrease in seven students per teacher or a movement to a pupil/teacher ratio of 8-1 in the average classroom.” In plain English, this indicates that having a more effective principal could provide teachers with a sense of much greater instructional capacity.
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For Burkhauser’s study, see http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/Study.pdf