Leadership Matters: 4 Best Practices for Keeping Principals on the Job

Leadership Matters: 4 Best Practices for Keeping Principals on the Job

The need to attract and retain teachers is well documented, with numerous sources warning of a looming teacher shortage fueled in part by high turnover—and troublingly, high rates of attrition are an issue with school principals, too. 

In fact, more than 30% of principals leave their schools after two years and close to 20% leave after just one year, according to research conducted by the Learning Policy Institute in conjunction with the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

While it is a tall order to list the myriad ways in which principals are—as the Learning Policy Institute put it—“vital for ensuring student success,” the institute distilled some of principals' most meaningful contributions as:

  • Establishing a positive school-wide culture

  • Motivating members of staff

  • Supporting and inspiring teachers

Needless to say, principal attrition can significantly hamper the impact of such efforts, which makes getting to the root of the problem a critical element of keeping principals on the job.

According to a write-up of the Learning Policy Institute and NASSP report written by Roger Riddell and published by the online news source Education Dive, principals’ reasons for leaving are very similar to those of classroom teachers. In addition to stagnant pay, inadequate professional support, and a lack of autonomy on the job, exiting principals cited the following motivators:

  • Overwhelming responsibilities coupled with insufficient salaries

  • Lack of preparation

  • Impact of high-stakes accountability policies

Addressing the problem

So, how can school districts help principals feel sufficiently recognized and rewarded? What can be done to ensure that more students, teachers, and entire school communities get a chance to thrive with stable, well-supported leaders at the helm?

The Center on Great Teachers and Leaders, a project of the American Institutes for Research, may have some answers. In 2015, the center published a policy brief that took a closer look at why principals leave and presented some recommendations for reducing the likelihood that they'll elect to go elsewhere. Echoing the Learning Policy Institute and NASSP study's findings, the center pointed to stress, low pay, and lack of decision-making power as common factors that tend to drive principals away, then proposed the following remedies:

  1. Improve recruitment and preparation
    According to the center, policymakers and school officials should pay close attention to how, where, and to what effect principals are being prepared for their future work as school leaders. This will facilitate an informed, comprehensive assessment of how well candidates are able to do in their new administrative roles from Day One.

  2. Develop specialized programs for high-need schools
    Given that turnover rates are higher for principals who work in high-poverty schools, the center recommended increased funding for programs designed to help ready these leaders for the realities of such an undertaking. After all, the center noted, “High-quality clinical school-based opportunities and residencies can help prepare principal candidates for the challenges of working in high-need environments.”

  3. Provide mentoring and support systems
    Studies clearly indicate that many principals—like many teachers—want and need more on-the-job support and guidance, which may take the form of coaching, clear goals, or careful attention to instructional leadership. As the pro-leadership Wallace Foundation has pointed out, although many states now require new principals to be mentored, more work is needed to ensure mentoring is not just “nice” but is actually paying off.

  4. Supply continuous support
    In light of the fact that difficult working conditions are among the main reasons principals leave their positions, the center suggested surveying principals to find out more about these issues, then using the resultant data to craft sound, state-level policies that will enact systemic improvement.


Learning by example

Beyond simply making the recommendations outlined above, the center's brief also presented specific programmatic examples in conjunction with each recommendation. For instance, the New York City-based Cahn Fellows Program seeks to provide principals with support, professional development, and leadership training through a variety of approaches that include leadership summits for mentors and mentees, faculty study groups that are held throughout the academic year and organized around specific workplace issues, and a school leadership institute designed specifically for principals who work in urban schools. 

Moreover, as Riddell’s Education Dive article noted, cultivating a healthy work-life balance is critical to prevent feelings of burnout that often contribute to attrition among educators. As the Learning Policy Institute and NASSP report phrased it, “A better understanding of the implications, the influential factors, and the strategies that best address [principal turnover] would fill gaps in the literature and shed light on promising practices to reduce [it].”

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