BOSTON — As the need to recruit and retain high-quality teachers has gained the spotlight amid shortages nationwide, so too has the need to reduce turnover among principals.
According to research from the Learning Policy Institute (LPI), produced in collaboration with the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), 35% of principals stay at their school for less than two years. Just 11% stay for a decade or more.
Additionally, nearly one in five principals leaves each year.
"That means you’ve got to reboot those schools every time that happens," LPI President and CEO Linda Darling-Hammond said, summarizing researchers' findings in a session at the 2019 National Principals Conference last week.
Just like their counterparts in the classroom, the factors leading to principal turnover are largely related to support, recognition and salary. For example, teachers in the U.S. generally earn about 30% less than their counterparts in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, and principal salaries track similarly, Darling-Hammond said.
According to the research, a mixed-methods study that included a literature review on principal turnover and focus groups with principals, the top reasons cited by principals for leaving their jobs were:
- poor working conditions
- lack of resources
- insufficient salaries
- inadequate preparation and professional development
- overwhelming job with inadequate support
- lack of decision-making authority
- high-stakes accountability policies
The research also shows that principals are highly committed to their students and staff, and that the root of the turnover problem is school conditions.
Having a 'real impact on students'
For more insight on these issues, Darling-Hammond introduced two principals for a panel conversation on what has kept them in the profession over the years.
Hannah Nieskens of Whitehall High School in Whitehall, Montana — a 2019 NASSP Principal of the Year finalist — serves a small rural student population, half of which are economically disadvantaged. In her four years there, the school's achievement ranking has progressed from 99th in the state to sixth, according to ACT scores. She has also seen office referrals decrease significantly, as well.
Put simply, she has stayed in the position because she believes she is making a difference. "The job we do has real impact on students. It has real impact on this nation," Nieskens said.
But she also confirmed that the findings in the research are true, and she’s experienced all of those challenges. "There are some real hurdles to overcome to keep people in this job and recruit people to this position," she said.
Hector Espinoza of Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, California, talked about his progression to the principalship over his four decades in education — from instructional aid to teacher to administrator. He said that personal commitment drives him, but there are factors beyond that.
There are days when principals start questioning things, Espinoza said, and it's important to have some professional and personal balance. There are a variety of influences on a principal's job performance that include pressures from local, state and national levels, as well as from superintendents and central offices.
School leaders, he said, have to recognize they can’t do it all on a daily basis and that it’s okay to delegate. The challenges named in the research, he added, exist to some degree in any school. So he stays positive.
“When people ask me how I’m doing, I always tell them the same thing," Espinoza said. "If I had a tail, I’d be wagging it.”
The reality, he said there's a $23 million budget deficit in his district, and that gap is expected to persist. When local autonomy is taken away because of those budget concerns, he said it’s important to recognize the influences he can’t control and move on with it.
Being a resource for other principals
Nieskins discussed some of the challenges facing school leaders in remote areas. The largest district in Montana, she said, has only 11,000 students. "We’re all spread out in this very large area. Professional development (PD) can be very difficult to obtain," she said.
Professional learning networks become very important in this case, adding that it's critical for principals to have a. network in which to share best practices and experiences.
"If (principals) are not coming to me, I’m coming to them. I have no problem picking up the phone."
Principal, Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, California
She has driven and initiated much of her own professional learning, she said. "In the process of that, I’m also striving to be a resource for other principals. I like that, and I like to seek that out from other people," she said, adding that conferences and networking have also been her greatest resource.
Espinoza said he also forges networks on his own. "If they’re not coming to me, I’m coming to them," he said. "I have no problem picking up the phone."
He said it's also important for principals to look outside of their state for learning opportunities. In California, and the San Diego area particularly, he wants more PD opportunities on how to work with English learners. Even though his district has a budget shortfall, there are efforts to address those concerns, including providing safe havens for immigrant students.
Nieskens said she’s been building knowledge on digital learning. Under the Montana Digital Academy, public schools can provide classes to students statewide in pretty much any subject they want. So if a student wants to learn Russian, for example, and it isn't available at their school, a teacher elsewhere in the state can teach them online and still have it count toward a requirement.
Improvements needed in evaluating principals
Both Espinoza and Nieskens had some strong words on the topic of evaluations — of both teachers and administrators.
Espinoza suggested that in his district, the process is a waste of time. Standards, he said, are not expressly identified and are often embedded at a very superficial level. The person evaluating both teachers and administrators is only required to visit the class or the school once, and the rest of the evaluation is largely based on assessments. He said more clarity is needed on what teachers and administrators are doing and how they can improve.
Montana is not dissimilar, Nieskens added. Principals are required to be evaluated just once per year, with some formative and some summative evaluation instruments. But with just one required evaluation, that ends up being summative.
She said that she has worked for six superintendents in 10 years, while Espinoza noted he has worked for 19 in 40 years. That creates an interesting dynamic as far as evaluations go, because district leaders have differing expectations.
Nieskens would like to see a model in which schools are measured by student growth rather than a target that is similar to another school. Are students moving forward? Are good things happening that maybe can’t be measured by data?
These metrics, the panelists agreed at the close of the discussion, tell more than summative assessment results.