Researchers untangle “why” behind exodus of principals from public schools

Feb. 15, 2010

Gilbert Hicks is an anomaly. He's been principal at the same school long enough for a three-year gym membership purchased in 2007 to expire.

Twenty or 30 years ago, when a principal took the reins at a school, he was there long enough to see three or four kids in the same family pass through the hallowed halls. Now, newly hired principals are exiting faster than you can say, "Where's your hall pass?"

Ed Fuller and Michelle Young
Principal retention researchers Ed Fuller and Michelle Young are part of the College of Education's University Council for Educational Administration.

According to a recent study by Dr. Ed Fuller and Dr. Michelle Young, who are part of the College of Education's University Council for Educational Administration at The University of Texas at Austin, only about half of newly hired Texas principals stay for at least three years. Data from this study reveal that Texas is in the middle of a retention crisis that's become a national epidemic.

Parents who've faced a new principal at the same school each year, for eight or nine years running, could have told you that something was wrong, but they couldn't have said why the job's turned into a revolving door. The scientific study by Young and Fuller is the first to address the scope of the retention and tenure problem in Texas and search for the reasons behind it.

"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."

Using state databases, like teacher certification records and data from the Texas Education Agency Web site, Fuller and Young set out to spot possible relationships among personal traits of the principals, schools' characteristics and the tenure of the principals.

They wanted to know if being at an elementary school rather than a high school made a significant difference in how long a new principal stayed and if there were differences in retention rates of males versus females or based on the race, age or formal training of the principal.

Findings suggest that school level does matter and that high schools are faring worse than the rest. They have the lowest retention rates and shortest tenure, with only about half of newly hired principals staying at least three years and less than 30 percent staying for five years. The average tenure for newly hired elementary school principals is around five years.

The economic status of the students and school achievement level also markedly influence whether principals stay at or leave a school. Data suggest the schools and students most in need of strong, long-term leadership are least likely to get and keep it.

Gilbert Hicks
Gilbert Hicks is principal of Austin ISD's Volma Overton Elementary School.

Principals in high-poverty schools have shorter tenure and lower retention rates, and principal tenure is substantially greater in the highest performing schools as compared to the lowest performing schools. Only about a quarter of the principals in the lowest performing schools remained for five years as compared to over 40 percent who stayed for five years or longer at the higher and highest performing schools.

Overall, retention rates in all schools at all performance levels were disappointingly low. The greatest three-year retention rate was 61 percent, while the greatest five-year rate was only 33 percent. Fuller and Young said findings suggest student achievement during a principal's first year on the job is particularly important in determining if a principal remains at that school or not.

Surprisingly, characteristics such as race, age, gender, rural versus urban districts, certification test results and principal preparation program quality had a negligible impact on retention.

"Principal retention matters because teacher retention and qualifications are greater in schools where principals stay longer," says Fuller. "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. And, of course, 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."

My guiding principle always has been that I'm here to remove barriers to success—period. Principal Gilbert Hicks

So where's the glimmer of a silver lining in this thunderhead? That would be Principal Gilbert Hicks and others like him.

Hicks' career profile is interesting because it's a study in what makes a great principal, and it reinforces many of Fuller and Young's conclusions about what principals need in order to flourish.

According to Hicks he always knew he wanted to be a teacher and then a principal and knew, before he even started either job, that he would be good at it.

"I had a master plan and I didn't consider not following through with it," says Hicks, who is principal at Austin Independent School District's (ISD) Volma Overton Elementary in East Austin. "It took a while because I couldn't quit work and go back to school full time for certification. I had an adult life with all of the adult responsibilities so I went through an emergency certification program and then taught math at Webb Middle School in Austin. While there, I was getting all of these very useful insights into what a teacher needs in order to do the job well, and I was viewing the job from the perspective of a future principal."

To get the necessary principal training, Hicks applied to be in the first cohort of five students in The University of Texas at Austin College of Education's newly created Principalship Program in 1996. The Principalship Program is in the Department of Educational Administration. At the time, the program was a partnership between Austin ISD and the university, and Hicks was one of its first graduates.

"After I got my graduate degree and appropriate certification, I was an assistant principal at LBJ High School in Austin," says Hicks, "and that was quite a challenging school. I actually feel lucky to have been there because it in no way lulled me into thinking the job would be a breeze. You need to see for yourself how complicated it is to manage relationships with students, teachers, parents and the community. I worked very closely with the principal while I was there—side by side—and she was the best mentor anyone could hope for.

"She knew I was committed to becoming a principal and wanted every single insight she could give me. The things I learned each day at that high school ended up serving me well, and when I see someone go straight from teaching to being a principal I feel that they're almost guaranteed to fail. The job is just too complex, demanding and, most of all, unpredictable. Being an assistant principal probably should be considered an essential component in readying yourself to be a principal. "

The least experienced and least qualified principals tend to take jobs at the lowest performing schools, which leads to the least experienced and least qualified teachers then being hired at those schools. Dr. Michelle Young

Young and Fuller's research indicates that most principals who thrive were assistant principals first and that less than one third of newly hired principals with no experience as an assistant principal stay at the same school for at least five years. Over one half of those with assistant principal experience stay. Hicks enthusiastically agrees that the experience he gained as assistant principal was indispensable and believes anyone who leapfrogs that step may have trouble managing the steep learning curve.

During the 11 years that Hicks has been a principal, he's remained in Austin and only worked in elementary schools where between 98 and 100 percent of the students received free or reduced cost lunches. At Volma Overton Elementary, the student body of 750 is 60 percent Hispanic and 40 percent African American, with the largest African American student population of any Austin ISD elementary school.

Hicks concedes it's harder working where a majority of the students face issues more fundamental and frightening than grades on a report card. But, to him, that's the best reason to be there.

"A lot of these students come to us with problems and backgrounds that most teachers can't even imagine, and they are miraculously resilient," says Hicks. "My guiding principle always has been that I'm here to remove barriers to success—period. Everything I do has to contribute to that ultimate goal. Really, whether you're dealing with a student, teacher or parent, you just need to model the sort of behavior that you want to see in others, and, most of all, you need to show respect. I'm fierce about modeling our school mantra, which is 'Bulldogs are respectful and kind," or 'BARK.'"

To that end, front office staff greet all visitors immediately and make sure their concerns are addressed with care and attention. Parents are made to feel welcome on campus, and Hicks' Spanish language skills allow him to speak to parents who feel more comfortable using Spanish. Hicks has a teacher appreciation program in place and is looking at ways to enhance it as well as the student appreciation program.

"Keeping morale up is very important to me," says Hicks. "I make an effort to visit every teacher's class each morning and I give each one positive feedback every single day. People need to feel appreciated for the good work that they do. This is especially true for our children. If a child has no confidence and is misbehaving because he can't read well and has low self-esteem, we get him the proper intervention right away. His confidence goes through the roof—you wouldn't believe the transformation that occurs both academically and socially. It's amazing what people can do when they're respected and acknowledged."

I want this school to be so excellent and so well-respected that parents are eager to get their students in and are picking up and moving to this community because there's such a great elementary school in it. Won't that be something? Principal Gilbert Hicks

Hicks is fortunate to have been given considerable autonomy in his role as school leader. He was able to open Volma Overton, a three-year-old school, and hire all of the teachers himself. As Fuller and Young's research indicates, principals are more likely to stay at a school when they receive a vote of confidence from their superiors, are allowed to be on their campuses as much as possible and play a significant role in decision-making.

According to those who know Hicks, any vote of confidence in him is well-placed and hard-earned. He's part of Austin ISD's mentoring program for new principals and coaches new principals in the district. He is on the National Advisory Council for the Principal's Center at Harvard University and in the Urban School Leader's Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he's won a slew of awards from Austin ISD.

Even as exceptional as Hicks is, he's only one person. To expand the ranks of talented, dedicated school leaders like him, the College of Education is using a $3.5 million U.S. Department of Education grant to start the University of Texas Collaborative Urban Leadership Project (UTCULP). The program will offer a master's degree in education on site in select urban Texas school districts, and the degrees will be designed to address each district's unique needs. Dallas ISD is the first to benefit from this innovative new program, with classes in Dallas beginning this June. Houston ISD and Harlandale ISD will be added over the next two years.

"We'll assess the nominees and select those we feel best fit the goals of the program," said Dr. Mark A. Gooden, co-principal investigator and Principalship Program director. "We want exceptional, dedicated teacher-leaders who excel at collaborating with others, communicating and problem solving. In short, we're looking for educators driven to improve the educational landscape for all children within these large urban school districts."

So Gilbert Hicks won't be an anomaly for much longer. Not that he ever gave that much thought anyway—he's got other things on his mind.

"My plan and intent is for Volma Overton Elementary to become an exemplary campus as measured by the Texas Education Agency," says Hicks, "and I know we can do it. Let's just put it this way—I don't intend to leave before we do. I want this school to be so excellent and so well-respected that parents are eager to get their students in and are picking up and moving to this community because there's such a great elementary school in it. Won't that be something?"

For more information, contact: By Kay Randall
College of Education

Banner and inside photos: Christina Murrey