Skip to:

Examining Principal Turnover


The patterns you described mirror the ones you see in entry-level courses, particularly in high school (e.g., Algebra I), where increasingly experienced teachers move into more advanced courses, creating a constant churn of less experienced teachers in watershed courses. I look forward to seeing more of your work discussed here, Ed.

I realize fig. 2 gets at this indirectly, but how do student bodies perform when they have high versus low turnover (after controlling for demographics, etc.)?

Very recent research (we are talking 3-4 papers) suggest that principal turnover has a direct negative effect on student achievement. Further, the recent RAND study I cite above suggests that not only is the effect direct and negative, but relatively long-lasting over time. Other research ties principal turnover to teacher turnover and then a different body of literature ties teacher turnover to having a negative effect on student outcomes. Thus, there may be both an indirect effect (primarily through staff capacity, quality, and stability) and a direct effect that I would argue (with no evidence to back me or anyone else up) is related to the overall disruption, decrease in trust, and increase in anxiety caused by turnover which makes for a generally worse school climate. This entire area needs much, much more research.

Great post on an under-examined area. I think there's a selection story that isn't being told by these data that may yield some insights into the sources of principal turnover (Ed may have done this elsewhere, and I just missed it). What are the differences between principals who are selecting struggling campuses? Are they new principals? Is it their first job? Where do they come from? Are they promoted APs from inside or outside of the school? And, importantly, where are they going when they leave? I'm also curious whether some of these associations hold if you moved away from static measures of performance to looking at campus-level growth. What if schools' performance is improving? Are they less likely to leave? Is turnover less severe? There also seems to be an assumption that teacher turnover is a function of principal turnover ("stems from"). I do wonder whether these aren't just spurious manifestations of chronically underperforming schools, or whether teachers actually leave in response to a principal leaving. One way to disentangle this would be to identify high/low performing campuses with high/low principal turnover (assuming there are any), and examine whether the associations with teacher turnover hold.

Marshall--thanks for the comment. I will review some more of these details in future posts (assuming Matt will graciously post them). But a few points. First, turnover is pretty high everywhere. Second, principals at low-performing (and all schools) are more likely to remain in their school for at least one year and up to three years. However, even after controlling for growth, my research suggest that the accountability rating and/or absolute level of initial performance are still negatively associated with staying at a school even after controlling for growth. Newly hired principals at low-performing schools generally have the same years of experience as a principal before being hired (not very much), but fewer years of being an assistant principal. In fact, it turns out that having more years as an assistant principal appears to be associated with the probability of staying longer. Where do they go? Most principals that leave low-performing schools disappear entirely from the public school database and never appear again. Principals in high-performing high schools (particularly white males) go on to superintendent and associate superintendent positions. This creates a huge disconnect because very, very few district leaders have any experience--much less success--in low-performing schools, thus likely cannot provide much guidance to newly hired principals in those schools and probably don;t even understand the context within which the principal has to operate. Again, I'll lay out some more of the details in future posts.

I am currently doing a dissertation on the effects of frequent principal turnover and I am very impressed that most of the authors that are listed in this article are also listed in my literature review. I am studying this phenomenon because it is an experience I have lived. Going through six principals in a seven year period at a low performing school is no laughing matter. The only way to stop this type of insanity is to provide enough studies with information to prove that this type of turnover REALLY is detrimental to the students that we are supposed to be educating. If we do not stop the ritual scapegoating and vicious cycle of frequent principal turnover, what will we have to look forward to? Possibly an under-educated population that is dependent on more government assistance to support itself.


This web site and the information contained herein are provided as a service to those who are interested in the work of the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI). ASI makes no warranties, either express or implied, concerning the information contained on or linked from The visitor uses the information provided herein at his/her own risk. ASI, its officers, board members, agents, and employees specifically disclaim any and all liability from damages which may result from the utilization of the information provided herein. The content in the Shanker Blog may not necessarily reflect the views or official policy positions of ASI or any related entity or organization.