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Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover: A Review of the Research

By Stephanie Levin Kathryn Bradley
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About the NASSP–LPI Principal Turnover Research Series

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) are currently collaborating on an intensive, yearlong research project to identify the causes and consequences of principal turnover nationwide. The purpose is to increase awareness of this issue, and to identify and share evidence-based responses to help mitigate excessive turnover in the principal profession. This brief is the second in a series. The first, which presented findings from a literature review, covers the known scope of the principal turnover problem and provides a basis for understanding its mechanisms. It also suggests, based on past research, that district and school leaders and federal and state policymakers implement a number of strategies to increase principal retention: Offer effective and ongoing professional development; improve working conditions; provide fair, sufficient compensation; provide greater decision-making authority; and decrease counterproductive accountability practices. This brief builds on that knowledge with insights from focus groups of school leaders who shared their experiences and expertise on the challenges of the principalship, as well as strategies to address these challenges.

In addition to the literature review and focus groups, the yearlong research agenda includes analysis of both the U.S. Department of Education National Teacher and Principal Survey and a national principal survey that will delve deeply into the five focus areas that emerged from the initial research. Findings from the survey will increase the field’s knowledge regarding principals’ mobility decisions. Based on the research, LPI and NASSP will develop recommendations for policymakers at all levels of government to advance policies for states, districts, and schools to support and retain high-quality school leaders.

All the briefs in this series are available at and

Executive Summary

Principals are vital for ensuring student success. Their actions help maintain a positive school climate, motivate school staff, and enhance teachers’ practice. Therefore, they play a major role in retaining effective teachers and ensuring their success in the classroom. Ultimately, principal leadership has significant implications for students’ experiences and accomplishments.

Research notes that principal turnover can be disruptive to school progress, often resulting in higher teacher turnover and, ultimately, lower gains in student achievement. Further, the relationship between principal turnover and declines in student outcomes is stronger in high-poverty, low-achieving schools—the schools in which students most rely on education for their future success.

In addition to the costs to students and teachers if good principals leave, schools and districts must devote time and resources to replace the outgoing principals. The financial implications are significant and, often, covered by redirecting funds that had been slated for the classroom.

Turnover is a serious issue across the country. The national average tenure of principals in their schools was four years as of 2016–17. This number masks considerable variation, with 35 percent of principals being at their school for less than two years, and only 11 percent of principals being at their school for 10 years or more. The most recent national study of public school principals found that, overall, approximately 18 percent of principals were no longer in the same position one year later. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. Principal turnover also varies by state.

Understanding Principal Turnover

To understand why excessive turnover exists, researchers have investigated the relationship between principal turnover and various features of the principalship; which principals are most likely to leave; and which schools are more vulnerable to principal turnover.

Why Do Principals Leave Their Jobs?

The research points to five reasons that principals leave their jobs, aside from retirement or dismissal.

  1. Inadequate preparation and professional development. Several elements of professional learning opportunities are associated with principal retention: high-quality preparation programs that carefully select and deeply prepare principals for challenging schools; access to in-service training, mentoring, and coaching that continue to support and develop principals; and collaborations between professional learning programs and school districts.
  2. Poor working conditions. A number of conditions can influence principals’ decisions about employment, including access to support; the complexity of the job and amount of time needed to complete all necessary activities; relationships with colleagues, parents, and students; and disciplinary climate.
  3. Insufficient salaries. Salaries matter to principals in choosing new positions and in deciding whether to stay. Low salaries that do not adequately compensate principals and are not competitive with other jobs lead to higher rates of principal departure.
  4. Lack of decision-making authority. Principals are less likely to leave their positions when they believe they have greater control of their work environment and the ability to make decisions across a range of issues such as spending, teacher hiring and evaluation, and student discipline.
  5. High-stakes accountability policies. Counter-productive accountability polices can create disincentives for principals to remain in low-performing schools and can influence principals’ mobility decisions.

Which Principals are Less Likely to Leave?

Among the principal characteristics most strongly associated with job stability is educational experience, including preparedness for the position as a result of preparation and/or in-service programs and having an advanced degree. Better-prepared principals, including those who have had internships and/or mentors, are less stressed and stay longer, even if they are in high-need schools. Relatedly, some evidence suggests that principals who are viewed as more effective by teachers and supervisors are less likely to leave, unless they are promoted. Researchers suggest that perhaps because these principals feel more efficacious, they feel better about their work and are more likely to stay. Both findings suggest the importance of supporting principals in building their capacity to do the complex work required in their schools.

Which Schools are More Vulnerable to Principal Turnover?

Overall, the relationships between school and student characteristics and a principal’s likelihood of leaving are much stronger than relationships between principals’ personal characteristics and principal turnover. The most robust evidence from the studies reviewed indicate that schools with higher percentages of students from low-income families, students of color, and low-performing students are more likely to experience principal turnover. The root of the problem, however, may be the school characteristics—such as low levels of resources, less competitive salaries, and problematic working conditions—that are often concurrent with student disadvantage. These schools are also more likely to be subject to accountability pressures, which are associated with higher turnover. Compounding this problem is the fact that these schools often struggle with student mobility and with attracting highly qualified teachers. Indeed, some research suggests that when teaching and learning conditions are more favorable, both teachers and principals are more likely to stay, regardless of the nature of the student population.

Strategies for Reducing Principal Turnover

Given the costs of turnover, in terms of finances as well as school outcomes, efforts to retain principals are important. Policymakers and practitioners have multiple opportunities to address the root causes of principal turnover by investing in evidence-based practices to reduce principal attrition.

Based on our review of the research evidence, we have identified five strategies that schools, districts, and states can implement to reduce unnecessary principal turnover. They include:

  1. Providing high-quality professional learning opportunities, both initial preparation and in-service, to give principals the necessary skills and competencies for school leadership
  2. Improving working conditions to foster principals’ satisfaction with their role
  3. Ensuring adequate and stable compensation for principals, commensurate with the responsibilities of the position, to value principals’ contributions and to attract and retain effective leaders
  4. Supporting decision-making authority in school leadership to allow principals to shape decisions and solutions to address the specific needs of their staff and students
  5. Reforming accountability systems to ensure that incentives encourage effective principals to stay in challenging schools to support teachers and improve student learning

While the existing research provides a basis for understanding the mechanisms of principal turnover, there is much more to learn. A better understanding of the implications, the influential factors, and the strategies that best address it would fill gaps in the literature and shed light on promising practices to reduce principal turnover.

NASSP Principal Turnover FIG4 report

We are grateful to the National Association of Secondary School Principals for its funding of this report. Funding for this area of LPI’s work is also provided by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and the Sandler Foundation. Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the Sandler Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Ford Foundation.