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Six years ago, Sabrina Doublin had her doubts about working as a principal during her first year on the job at a rural Missouri school district. But when she joined the Missouri Leadership Development System a year later, those questions about staying in the profession faded.
“I realized I can do this,” Doublin said. “I’m not by myself. I have help.”
Working as a principal can be a lonely job.
“Any time you have a title that no one else has, it’s kind of an isolated position to be in, and especially if you’re a school principal, you’re kind of middle management,” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner of the Office of Educator Quality at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
As such, it's crucial that there are professional networks like the Missouri Leadership Development System, or MLDS, which provides training and support to anyone aspiring to be a principal or to those who are well into their school leadership careers, he said. MLDS operates through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and began seven years ago.
MLDS has helped to alleviate that feeling of isolation for Doublin, middle and high school principal at the Marquand-Zion District R-VI School District. Under the statewide program, Doublin said she always feels like she has someone to lean on.
Through MLDS, Doublin also mentors two other early career principals, and she always reminds them of this same lesson. “I think that’s the best thing about MLDS is that you really are never alone, so it’s not as scary as maybe it once was.”
What’s behind principal turnover?
Researchers have found when principal turnover takes place, it has tangible negative effects on schools that include lowered student achievement and more teachers leaving the classroom.
By the end of the 2021-22 school year, principal turnover hit 16% nationally — rising 13 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, a February RAND Corp. report found in its survey of district leaders. A different survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals also showed in 2022 that half of school leaders’ said their stress levels were so high, they were considering a career change or early retirement.
COVID-19 alone isn’t to blame for recent findings that principal turnover could be increasing since the pandemic, Doublin said.
With public trust declining in education and politicization rising in school communities, pressure is mounting for some principals to the point where it may be driving them away. In January 2022, 48% of surveyed principals said the “intrusion of political issues and opinions into their profession was a job-related stressor,” according to a RAND Corp. report.
“The way that society has changed its opinion of the public school system really has caused more stress on the administrators than anything else,” Doublin said.
Missouri principal retention improves
Even amid all this commotion of principal turnover and politically-related stress, there are state-backed programs like the Missouri Leadership Development System that show principal retention can still improve with the right supports in place.
Principal participation in the Missouri Leadership Development System soars
Between the 2016-17 and 2022-23 school years, the number of principals participating in MLDS jumped from 137 to 1,600, according to the department. Overall, there are 2,200 principals in Missouri.
The retention rate of MLDS principals has consistently exceeded the state average between 9 to 14 percentage points for the last five years, Katnik said. When comparing MLDS principals to non-MLDS principals, that gap grows wider to roughly 20 percentage points, he added.
As MLDS participation rose to 1,600 principals over the last four years, the state average for principal retention has also increased, Katnik said.
Missouri Leadership Development System sees higher principal retention compared to statewide average rates
There are nine regional centers with a total of 30 specialists throughout Missouri to support MLDS principals across the state, he said. The program also offers microcredentials for allowing principals to upgrade their certificates without having to get another degree.
Keeping MLDS financially sustainable
It costs about $4 million per year to run MLDS, according to Katnik. The funding comes from federal and state dollars, such as Title I, Title II A, an early childhood grant, federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money and a federal grant known as the Supporting Effective Educator Development grant program.
“We were doing MLDS before ESSER, and we’re going to do it after... We don’t fund it with any one source. It’s spread out.”
Assistant commissioner of the Office of Educator Quality at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
For the SEED program, the U.S. Department of Education recently awarded a 3-year $10 million grant to MLDS to help boost training for principals in accelerated student learning, social-emotional learning and staffing classrooms, Katnik said. The Title II A funding allows the state to take 3% of those district funds to support leadership development, but before the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to use those district dollars to create MLDS, state officials asked superintendents if the state should do so.
“We wanted to use it to build MLDS, and we said, ‘Tell us now if you don’t want us to do that.’ And not one superintendent said, ‘Don’t do it,’” Katnik said. “So I feel like the clientele I serve are all of those folks whose money I’m keeping.”
For Katnik, it’s important that MLDS “outlive all of us that are in it today.” A key ingredient to prolonging the program is the blended funding streams, he said. So even when the ESSER spending deadlines expire in fall 2024, Katnik said, there’s still sustainable funding from different avenues that will pay for ongoing MLDS initiatives.
“We were doing MLDS before ESSER, and we’re going to do it after,” Katnik said. “We don’t fund it with any one source. It’s spread out.”
What can other states do?
Statewide efforts to address principal turnover should be approached in a “more surgical than brute force” manner, because the problem may not look the same in every school or district, said Paul Manna, the Isabelle and Jerome E. Hyman Distinguished University Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary.
Manna also wrote a 2015 report published by The Wallace Foundation that recommends several policy levers to improve state policy on school leadership. Some of the policy avenues states can pursue include defining the scope and standards for a principal’s job, working with districts and preparation programs to recruit aspiring principals, overseeing principal preparation programs, adjusting the licensing requirements for new and veteran principals, and providing principals with professional development.
“It doesn’t mean that you have to use every lever,” Manna said. “If you’re bad at some of them but others you are good at, start there.”
States need to consider the best role for them to play in alleviating principal turnover, Manna said. States don’t have to just lead over districts in these initiatives — they can follow or partner with districts, too. But that may also require state officials to have difficult conversations with schools and districts, he said.
Additionally, states “better be prepared to listen to the real answers they’re going to get,” Manna said. “They operate more top-down. They operate bureaucratically. They all say they want to be supportive and partners, but they have to really commit to changing if they really want to operate that way.”