As students in Washington, D.C., headed back to school this year, nearly one quarter of them were greeted by new principals [read the article]. In Pinellas County, Florida, 27 of the district’s 118 schools have new leaders at the helm this year, and 75 of those schools have had two or more principals over the past five years [read the article].
The high turnover rates among school leaders in those two districts are not all that unusual. High turnover is widespread. Such turnover is impacted by a wide range of causes, from early retirement packages offered to senior principals in order to generate budget savings to the appointment of new principals to turn around “failing” schools. In addition, some districts maintain policies that require principal rotation as a means of reinvigorating schools and their leaders.
Many of the reasons for school-leader turnover are unavoidable or can be justified. But districts would be wise to take notes from a study released in August that affirms the connection between strong and stable leadership and student achievement. Strong leadership has a more direct and meaningful impact on achievement than do factors such as geography or poverty, the study says.
The study also found that, on average, fairly rapid principal turnover (about one new principal every three to four years) can have negative effects on school culture. Principals newly assigned to schools who initially work within the existing culture of their schools -- rather than attempting to quickly, substantially change it -- are more likely to avoid negative turnover effects.
STRONG “COMMUNITIES” CAN WEATHER TURNOVER
According to the study, leaders are most effective when they see themselves as working collaboratively towards clear, common goals with district personnel, other principals, and teachers. District support for shared leadership -- including mentoring for new principals and professional development for all principals -- is the key.
The study also affirms that higher-performing schools ask for more input and engagement from a wider variety of stakeholders and provide more opportunities for influence by teachers. When teachers feel attached to a professional learning community, the impact on student learning is positive and measurable.
Most important of all, when teachers -- as well as parents and other community members -- are an integral part of the leadership in a school, they can often play a big role in ensuring that a change in leadership at the top will not negatively impact student achievement.
Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning
This study is the result of a six-year investigation of the links between leadership and student learning. It was commissioned by the Wallace Foundation and carried out by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement and the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education [read the study].