“Burn and Churn” among Charter School Principals

Seventy-one percent of charter school principals expect to leave their posts within five years.  That will be a turnover rate of nearly three out of every four principals. As for the actual turnover among charter school principals–there are over 5000 charter schools with an average of four hundred start-ups annually–the rate is about the same as regular public schools, according to a recent report (pub_ICS_Succession_Nov10-1). So  “burn and churn” (see April 24, 2010 post) among principals scorches even charters where stakeholders are deeply involved in choosing who leads the school.

Turnover in regular urban schools also runs very high. 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. Revolving door principals lower teacher morale (perhaps increasing teacher turnover as well) and disrupt programs. Newly arrived principals bring a fierce determination to leave their thumbprints on the school and after leaving their marks, they exit early–that is less than five years–seldom helping 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 charter school principals. The New Leaders for New Schools venture and similar efforts to fill the ranks of regular urban schools and charters with young, activist principals whose mantra is: “No Excuses” is undercut by  high turnover among principals.

So what? With similar track records of turnover, what’s the big deal about entering and exiting charter school principals. First, establishing charter schools is a federal solution to low-performing urban schools in the federal No Child Left Behind law and the current Race To The Top federal funding. No longer a novelty, charter schools as a vehicle for parental choice in low-income neighborhoods have become a weapon in the arsenal of most urban superintendents who seek to dismantle failing schools and create effective ones. Second, both research and experience have shown that a principal is a key factor in the success or failure of a school.

So According to ICS_Succession_Nov10-1,: “Leadership turnover in charter schools may be similar to traditional public schools, but charter schools are particularly vulnerable … [because of] the importance of finding a leader with the right ‘fit,’ and because charter schools are often independent and unable to tap into a pool of ready candidates when it comes to hiring.”

Most charter schools are in urban districts and have an ideology–a mission–driving their founders (e.g., help Latinos to be the first-in-the-family to go to college, work with African American students in danger of dropping out of school, provide science and arts education to minority students). These founders and their successors have complicated tasks in mobilizing political and economic support for the mission of the charter school, establishing a separate facility or one within a regular public school, dealing with the governing board, negotiating constantly with district officials who provide funding, and a score of other leadership tasks including managing efficiently a new school and supervising teachers. In short, charter school principals are closer to being superintendents in overall responsibilities, albeit only for one school, than a traditional principal in regular schools.

When the founders leave their charter school, and they do after five-plus years, finding the right person who can carry the ideological torch and  continue to manage, politick, and lead instructionally is especially difficult because no national or regional pool of candidates exists and internal plans for succession are AWOL. Nor have the political, managerial, and instructional dimensions of the job been fully appreciated by charter governing boards. Planning for “leadership succession,” the operating lingo, is uncommon among charter schools making them vulnerable to demise when founders or second-generation principals exit. That’s why turnover among charter school principals is an issue.

Some of the difficulty in finding replacements who can fit the tough political and managerial demands of leading charters while carrying the torch of distinctive missions will ease as networks of contacts among local, state, and national charter school organizations grow and as “leadership succession” plans become standard procedure (e.g. Aspire charter schools and KIPP already identify and train potential principals). Recruiting and training charter school teachers to be principals will grow but the unique demands of leading such schools will also continue and stretch far beyond what regular school principals traditionally do. And in the complexity of leading charter schools, a de facto “burn and churn” strategy of principal leadership will limit successes while yielding a steady stream of failing schools (CREDO_2009_FINAL).


Filed under school leaders

6 responses to ““Burn and Churn” among Charter School Principals

  1. Beth Bernstein-Yamashiro

    I was a principal of a Los Angeles charter high school for two years. I did leave, mainly because my commute became untenable and I have kids. But I would have burned out eventually. I was very lucky because I had been an administrator for seven years in Long Beach Unified, a great district in terms of administrator training. Had I not done that, I would not have even had a picture of what types of systems needed to be in place (or how to run testing or much of anything. The problem I had and what I see in the charter world is that principals have to do way too much because there isn’t enough money for infrastructure. Unless your charter is part of a CMO like Greendot or KIPP, economies of scale do not work in your favor. I had to do everything my first year, as I had no AP and no counselor. When I needed a new teacher, I had to write the advertisement, post it, field the resumes, do all of the preliminary calls, and then bring the candidates in. These are all things that those in district or CMOs have done for them. Only after candidates are fully vetted do principals even meet them. All of the regular every day administrative tasks usually left to clerks and secretaries are often left for the principal. I’m not sure if this is true everywhere, but I really think that there should be a requirement that support staff have degrees and that the schools have enough infrastructure in order to get authorization and re-authorization.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Beth, for your detailed comment on your experiences and what occurs in many charter schools lacking the support staff to simply get started and operate as a school.

  2. As a former IT headhunter when I began working with K-12 schools, 5 years ago I was stunned by the near non-existent “system” behind hiring. Other then education and certification they simply do not know what they are looking for. There is little to no regard for experience doing what needs done and experience with the population that they will work with, at all levels. Because there isn’t layers of administration it is imperative that you hire a leader with an entrepreneurial spirit/background. They say that “if you want a different result you have to use a different process” and no where is that more true in the management of human capital. It remains to be seen if charters will embrace this truth or continue to “burn and churn”.

  3. Pingback: Charter School Principal Churn — An Ominous Trend | Edwize

  4. Damon

    It’s interesting how principals are expected to and allowed to “fit” into their environment to succeed, where teachers aren’t given that option. Can you imagine if 70% of teachers just got up and taught at a different school because their teaching environment didn’t “fit” them?

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