Principal Turnover: “Burn and Churn” Strategies and Student Academic Achievement

“Our [principals] are influential agents of change who impact not only students and schools but entire communities, producing high school graduates well prepared for college, careers, and beyond. It is our mission to ensure high academic achievement for every student by attracting and preparing outstanding leaders and supporting the performance of the urban public schools they lead at scale.”

Such rhetoric and the sharp focus on the principal as an instructional leader among policymakers have made principals into heroic figures who can turn around failing schools, reduce the persistent achievement gap, and leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Instead of super-hero strength, however, new principals will need to spend more years on the job than the current ones do to cope with the pressures put on them. Listen to Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City:

“Each school will receive a grade, from ‘A’ to ‘F’ on its year-to-year progress in helping students advance. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to hold a principal’s feet to the fire than arming mom and dad with the facts about how well or poorly their children’s school is performing.”

Turning up the heat upon principals by mayors and superintendents–Washington, D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee met with each of the 156 principals when she first arrived and while being interviewed in a televised report fired one of them (off camera)–has increased dramatically in the past decade.

In addition to raising students test scores, reducing dropouts, and boosting graduation rates, principals still have a great deal on their plate every day. As one New York City principal of a small high school said:

“You’re a teacher, you’re Judge Judy, you’re a mother, you’re a father, you’re a pastor, you’re a therapist, you’re a nurse, you’re a social worker.” She took a breath and continued: “You’re a curriculum planner, you’re a data gatherer, you’re a budget scheduler, you’re a vision spreader.”

Putting all of these varied roles of instructional leader, manager, and politician into a coherent package where urban principals in largely minority and poor schools can work their magic takes time–five-plus years–yet turnover among the wave of new principals entering big city districts since 2000 raises serious questions about working relationships with teachers and doing what has to be done to raise student outcomes.

Consider that in Chicago 61 percent of the lowest performing schools have had three or more principals since 2000. In Austin (TX), 64 percent of high school principals leave after three years; after five years, 84 percent of Austin principals had left their posts. Revolving door principals lower teacher morale (probably increasing teacher turnover as well) and disrupt programs; newly arrived principals bring their solutions to the school’s old problems and a fierce determination to leave their thumbprints on the school. Early exits by principals–that is less than 3 years–seldom helps teachers, students, or the community.

So the “burn and churn” strategy of getting young, idealistic, determined teachers into hard-to-fill posts in urban schools now extends to principals with the New Leaders for New Schools venture and many other efforts to fill the ranks of urban principals with young, activist administrators whose bumper stickers says: “No Excuses.” The results of these strategies for student achievement have been mixed thus far, except for the high turnover among principals.

In a number of states and districts, half of all beginning principals leave within five years. Such attrition means that relationships between teachers and students and between teachers and principals, based on competence and confidence in doing the job well, has too little time to ripen into mutual trust . Without those solid relationships, kiss gains in school and classroom achievement goodbye. “Churn and burn” may work in the telecommunications and hospitality industries where employees move in and out of jobs quickly but such turnover in schools corrodes the quality of teaching and principaling over time by stripping away the value of learning from experience.

Holding onto young teachers and principals –retention–by creating better working conditions, incentives, and sustained professional development is costly but the return-on-investment in having experienced teachers and principals whose organizational memory and expertise stretches over five-plus years is far greater than constantly throwing goodbye parties for those exiting schools before they can make the contributions they dreamed of making.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Principal Turnover: “Burn and Churn” Strategies and Student Academic Achievement

  1. Chuck

    All principals could benefit by reading and reflecting on this post. Have served as a school-based administrator for over 16 years (10 as a principal), I’ve discovered than focused improvement efforts can bring achievement gains almost immediately. The key though, is to sustain those gains, and with a revolving door of administrators, it won’t happen.

  2. Paradoxically, “holding principals’ feet to the fire” can result in poor decisions for an institution because those same decisions are key for the principal’s survival.

    Strategic long-term personnel decisions and curriculum decisions are easily set aside to satisfy immediate needs. If you can imagine it, you can bet whatever it is has probably happened in some school.

  3. tim-10-ber

    To make the principal’s job somewhat easier I believe the need a true business manager for the school. The principal focuses on curriculum and the teachers. The business manager does all things related to the building, office staff, kitchen, food purchases, maintenance, etc. Both roles are very important to insure the school operates at its highest level. No one person can manage it all…

    • A good hospitality manager could do the site management. You would want them to be equal to administrators to prevent covering the campus with vending machines to make up for lost revenue. *wink*

      How about outsourcing serious security and putting school counselors over non-serious behavior so they get to students in need quickly? That way administrators don’t get to make deadly mistakes.

  4. Pingback: Holding on to Our Principals « InterACT

  5. C.

    As a teacher working in a building with a principal who has been highly pressured (4 years of not making AYP) I have seen that this type of situation leads to a very unhealthy school community. Our school used to been caring and child focused. It is now very stressful and test score focused. Last week alone I had 3 teachers come to my room in tears. Many others came angry. I am the local association VP and more and more before and after school it seems like my classroom has a revolving door. Relationships and a love of learning no longer matter, only the test scores. One parent recently told me that if it wasn’t for me and the difference I made for her two oldest children (I am also a special education teacher) , she would pull her children out of school and home school them. She knows that behind my closed door, I still find a way to create an excitement for learning and books, that I value self-esteem over a test score, and that I care about children as individuals.

  6. C.

    I apologize for errors in my above post. I think my iPad “auto-corrected” some things that didn’t need correcting and I missed them. I’m still learning that piece of this technology!

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