Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Impact of Principal Turnover

Flickr/Simon Cunningham

Joe Nelson wasn’t the only principal along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in August 2005 to face rebuilding a school in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. But he did it with exceptional leadership, focusing on setting up reward systems for students and teachers and creating an environment where they could flourish despite the devastation around them.

It paid off. Pass Christian Middle School in Mississippi has consistently scored high academically, even though two-thirds of the students live in poverty. In 2009, classes moved from a cluster of trailers into a new building. In 2012, the campus was named a National Blue Ribbon School. Nelson was named the state’s Principal of the Year in 2014.

Nelson’s staff and students have the advantage of his steady presence and leadership. That’s becoming increasingly rare in some school districts where principal turnover is on the rise. It’s an issue that directly affects students, said Kate Schimel, whose project, The Revolving Schoolhouse Door: Principal Turnover in Denver, was published by Chalkbeat Colorado. The project took first prize this year from the Education Writers Association for investigative reporting (general news outlet, small staff).

Schimel’s work is a blueprint for exploring similar issues in other school districts. She moderated a conversation at EWA’s recent National Seminar in Chicago called “Looking for Leaders: The Impact of Principal Turnover.” The panel comprised Nelson, Steve Rivkin of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Heather Anichini with The Chicago Public Education Fund.

Anichini is president and CEO of the nonprofit project focused on school leadership in Chicago. She previously worked for Teach For America, where she led the development of teacher and principal leadership.

Her data regarding principal quality in Chicago suggests it takes about five years for a principal to reach peak effectiveness. “We think that means that principals need to stay through at least two contracts here – so eight years – in order to reach that peak effectiveness and stabilize things long enough to transition, if they decide to transition,” Anichini said. “We know for sure that when principals don’t have the opportunity to do that, they aren’t able to sustain the great progress that they made in their schools.”  

Yet schools in some districts see annual turnover as principals leave for other jobs or aren’t given more time to bring about change. In Chicago, Anichini said, 60 percent of principals leave before they put in five years, either because they find other jobs or are moved out. She said the school system must redouble efforts to retain high performers. (Ironically, efforts to do so hit a setback in Chicago during the EWA’s national convention. See this report from the Chicago Tribune.)

The Chicago Public Education Fund found that in the Windy City 24 of 25 teachers say the principal is the top reason they stay in a certain school. Anichini added that great principals want to stay where they are but need support, trust and investment.

Nelson said he could have used more professional development and other support from school district administrators. Instead, he devised his own systems for keeping students and teachers focused.

Schimel’s final question for the panelists was, “Is there something reporters miss when they cover principals?” Their answers:

Rivkin said reporters are often too focused on the way principals present their schools. He says that principals should be judged by “how well the students are doing and how well the school is evolving in a very meaningful way.” He cautions that “ that‘s difficult to do” and that, “It’s easy for a reporter to come into a school and say, wow, that school is doing well and that school is doing badly on the basis of a look, a snapshot . … It’s very difficult to gain a clear understanding of the contribution a principal is making, particularly if you’re in a high-poverty school .”

Nelson: “Once you hit a level of success, it’s hard to stay there … There are some tough decisions that have to be made along the way to get there. It’s not popular.” Nelson says that the principal job is often unpopular because sometimes “we do things that we have to affect the whole student body, the whole community. Those are tough decisions to make,” he said.

Anichini: “One of the things I would love to see us do less of is to put principals in a position where they’re talking about one element of their school or another.” She encouraged reporters to try to get a more nuanced understanding of good leadership instead of focusing on just one innovation, or new professional development approach or new curriculum. “It’s great leaders that we want to keep in schools, not great implementers of a particular kind of curriculum,” she said.