About 70 Percent of New High School Principals Leave Within Five Years, Study Says

Oct. 5, 2009

AUSTIN, Texas — Only about half of newly hired Texas public school principals are staying on the job at least three years and principals in high-poverty schools are leaving the soonest, according to a study out of The University of Texas at Austin's College of Education.

Dr. Ed Fuller and Dr. Michelle Young, who are part of the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA), conducted the study on principal tenure and retention to examine how long newly hired Texas principals were staying and to explore the relationship among school characteristics, the principals' personal characteristics and tenure. Young and Fuller examined data on Texas public schools from 1996 through 2008.

"A good deal of research has been done on teacher retention," said Fuller, who is former director of research at the State Board for Educator Certification and a consultant to schools, universities and national education research organizations, "but not so much on principals. What we know about principal retention suggests that school leaders are crucial to the school improvement process and that they must stay in a school a number of consecutive years for the benefits of their leadership to be realized.

"Principal retention matters because teacher retention and qualifications are greater in schools where principals stay longer. Any school reform efforts are reliant on the principal creating a common school vision and staying in place to implement the level of reforms that are part of large-scale change. Also, there are financial costs to high principal turnover—the district has to spend money on recruiting, hiring and training a new principal as well as the new teachers that will inevitably need to be hired by the principal. Most important, the school loses the investment in capacity-building of the principal and teachers who leave."

Results of the recent study by Fuller and Young suggest:

  • elementary schools have the longest principal tenure and greatest retention rates
  • less than 30 percent of newly hired high school principals stay at the same school at least five years
  • principal retention rates are strongly influenced by the level of student achievement during the principal's first year of employment, with the lowest achieving schools having the highest principal turnover
  • the percentage of economically disadvantaged students in a school is a major determinant in how long a newly hired principal will stay, with principals in high-poverty schools having shorter tenure and lower retention rates
  • more than 20 percent of newly hired secondary school principals in the lowest achieving schools or highest-poverty schools leave after only one year on the job
  • principal retention is somewhat higher in suburban school districts where most students are white and not economically disadvantaged
  • principals' age, race and gender appear to play only a small role in principal retention

"Close examinations of leadership turnover are scarce, which is unfortunate, because one thing is certainly clear from our research—turnover is most severe in schools with the most challenging situations," says Young, UCEA executive director. "Addressing this principal retention problem will require a collaborative effort between districts, universities and states because preparation alone will not ensure a leader's success and retention. Leadership autonomy, changes to working conditions, opportunities for coaching and evaluation-informed professional development opportunities are essential."

Young and Fuller are planning subsequent studies in which more sophisticated analyses will be used to better understand the factors that affect tenure and retention.

The study was funded by the Texas High School Project Leadership Initiative, which is jointly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wallace Foundation, and conducted in partnership with the Texas Education Agency.

The UCEA is an international consortium of research institutions with doctoral programs in educational leadership and administration. It is housed at The University of Texas at Austin's College of Education. The consortium works with universities, practitioners, professional organizations and state and national leaders to improve the preparation and practice of school and school system leaders and to create a dynamic base of knowledge on excellence in educational leadership.

For more information, contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512 471 6033.

10 Comments to "About 70 Percent of New High School Principals Leave Within Five Years, Study Says"

1.  Kevin Croft said on Oct. 8, 2009

Did this study take into account a newly hired principal's years of experience (i.e. as a classroom teacher or assistant principal), in various social economic situations, prior to his/her appointment to a principalship? My experiences tell me that this is a key component in whether or not a principal has success.

2.  cynthia sembower said on Oct. 8, 2009

Two comments: I hope the additional studies will include regular exit interviews with the leaving principals to understand 'why' they made the decision. And are they leaving the state or just moving to another Texas school? I can't imagine dealing with the absurd Texas School Board.

3.  Cathy Berryhill said on Oct. 8, 2009

The University of Texas University Charter School district employs 11 principals whom you might be interested in studying. We are a part of UT.


4.  Suzanne Sanders said on Oct. 8, 2009

"Who will be resilient?" is a dilemma and is hard to measure. However, Martin Seligman, M.D. (psychiatric staff at Penn) did just that very thing for the insurance industry, where new workers must face the continual rejection of making 'cold calls.' Dr. Seligman's book is "Learned Optimism," and it is not new, by any means. Some of the same tools/screening he devised could be easily applied in the educational administration graduate programs. Plus, Seligman instructs (using Rational Emotive therapy techniques) one as to how to learn to tolerate better such things as confrontation, rejection, failure to see 'end product' results, etc. These are the very things that school principals face on a daily basis. There's no need to re-invent the wheel here: Dr. Seligman outlines it all in his book. School administrator is one of the toughest jobs going, particularly in lower SES areas, and more support must be given in order to break the cycle of leaving the job due to continual stress, confrontation, violence, rejection, and a feeling of being under 'personal attack.' Thanks for listening, Suzanne Sanders, Austin ISD

5.  r renner said on Oct. 9, 2009

High school principal work is tough work. Many students would prefer productive labor, but it has not been an option for many from poorer neighborhoods. School is often seen as dead-end busywork. Drug dealing is a poor long term substitute, but it can get you a long term. Work is a useful discipline.

6.  Paul Francis said on Oct. 10, 2009

I'd think a useful follow-up would be to examine the principals who leave the "challenging" schools after a brief time and those who tend to stay the five years. Systems should be considered, along with the personality traits (leadership styles?) and specificity of the principal's long-range goals for the school. Are there clear goals and objectives developed and shared?

7.  Cecilia Carrick said on Oct. 10, 2009

In my view, this data supports the argument that teachers and principals placed in poorly performing schools get incentive pay to stay. Why would you volunteer to work five times harder on a daily basis for the same compensation in a low performing school as the person who is placed in a school where parent input and teacher support is top notch.

8.  Dr. Rick Moreno said on Oct. 20, 2009

I just completed a study that addressed the Texas Catholic school principals' leadership style and its impact on student performance. The study utilized the MLQ and surveyed BOTH teachers and principals. The results were extremely interesting. It is important to take both into consideration when assessing school climate.

9.  Michael Stevens said on Nov. 9, 2009

The lack of quality leadership in schools has long been the greatest challenge to school improvement. The advent of the "testing travesty" has only exaggerated the problem. Given the political environment one can only ask the question - "is the job doable?"

Question - was the data disaggregated according to school and/or district size?

10.  Muhammad Musaud Asdaque said on March 6, 2010

High school heads' work is tough work. Many students would prefer productive labor, but it has not been an option for many from poorer neighborhoods. Drug dealing is a poor long-term substitute, but it can get you a long term. Work is a useful discipline.