How long do you plan to remain a principal?

On the first day of school in the fall, many students find that they not only need to catch up with new friends and teachers, but also new principals. The shuffling of principals can bring new perspective and energy to a school, but a tradeoff may occur during the period of transition and cohesion. In 2012, RAND researchers found that when principals leave, the school underperforms the next year. While principals’ leadership is certainly related to students’ achievement, how to measure the effect of principals on the performance of students is still under discussion (Grissom, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2014). A challenge for this measurement is principal turnover.

Principals retention is important. School districts see the role of principals as the most influential in the school; hiring an effective principal is often costly and time-consuming. To better understand principals and their work conditions, we studied the public schools’ data on principals in the 2011-12 Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which was administered by the U.S. Department of Education. One of our study objectives was to identify factors that are correlated with the retention of principals. The purpose of our study is to inform schools and their learning community of what factors may have a big impact on public school principals as decision makers, at both school and personal levels.

Stayers, movers and leavers

In the national report on principal surveys, percentages of three categories of principals (i.e., stayers, movers and leavers) are often shown for public school principal attrition and mobility. Stayers refer to those principals who stayed in their position (principals in the same school) from the school year when the SASS data were collected (base year) to the following year when SASS did a follow-up survey (current year). Movers refer to those who were still principals in the current school year but had moved to a different school after the base year. Leavers refer to those who were no longer principals after the base year.

As shown in Figure 1, most principals (around 80%) stay in their position within one school year, but there is a relative low percentage of movers (6-7%) and leavers (10-12%). This trend seems consistent across surveys in three different school years from 2008 to 2017. We noticed that during the 2016-17 school year, among “stayer” principals, nearly two thirds (62%) planned to remain as principals as long as they were able to, or until they were eligible for retirement benefits from the job. However, more than one third (38%) expressed the possibility that they would leave their position, including 12 percent who planned to leave whenever a more desirable job opportunity came along, and 21 percent who might leave but had not decided when at the time the survey was taken. In brief, principals retention still challenges school districts, a particular problem considering their major influence on school performance.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Percentage of public school principals—stayers, movers and leavers—in different school years (Source: U.S. Department of Education)

“Stayers” and their perception of their influence on school decisions

To explore what factors may predict the intention of principals to stay or leave their position, we used the SASS 2011-12 restricted data and conducted a series of logistic regression models. The results show that principals’ perception of their influence on school decisions really matters in terms of their planning to stay or leave. For principals who feel that they have moderate to major influence on decisions concerning budget and teachers’ professional development, the likelihood of being a stayer rather than a leaver is greater than for their peers who think they have minor or no influence on the same issues.

We also found that for principals who reported having moderate or major influence on determining the content of professional development programs for their in-service teachers, the chances of remaining as principals as long as they can or until they retire versus leaving or moving is 44 percent greater than that of their peers who felt they have minor or no influence on this issue (p=.011), even after controlling for variables of gender, age, race, salary, school types (e.g., school size, percentage of students who are eligible for free lunch programs). Additionally, for principals who felt they have moderate or major influence on deciding how the school budget would be spent, the chances of staying as long as they could or until their retirement versus moving or leaving is 28 percent greater than that of their peers who reported having minor or no influence on the same issue (p=.029).

In summary, our findings are consistent with previous literature in that “the levels of principals’ job autonomy negatively affect their turnover rates” (Sai, 2016, p. ix). In our next blogs, we will broach specifically, how the levels of principal autonomy are related to their relationship with teachers and their working styles in general.