Get Schooled

Your source to discuss and learn about education in Georgia and the nation and share opinions and news with Maureen Downey

In our focus on improving teachers, are we overlooking importance of principals?

In Georgia, we talk a lot about how to get and keep great teachers in the classrooms. We don't talk nearly as much about how to get and keep great principals in the schools.

The report "Churn: The High Cost of Principal Turnover " looks at the impact of the revolving door, explaining, “Twenty-fi­ve thousand (one-quarter of the country’s principals) leave their schools each year. Fifty percent of new principals quit during their third year in the role. Those that remain frequently do not stay at high poverty schools, trading difficult-to-lead schools for less demanding leadership roles that serve more affluent populations."

The study says school leadership has a direct impact on student success, noting, "When strong principals are at the helm of schools, they positively influence the school culture and the instructional quality of whole systems of teachers. Leaders’ effect on students contributes to 25 percent of the total school influences on a child’s academic performance. What does this actually mean in the lives of children? In one study, Branch, Hanushek and Rivkin found the top sixteen percent of principals realized additional two- to seven-month gains in student learning above schools with less effective leaders."

The Hechinger Report has a good piece on the importance of principals and the pressures they face in this new age of accountability, pressures that can send them running out the door.

As the report notes: (Please read the full Hechinger story if you have the time.)

But effective school leaders also need time — usually about five years — to build trust with faculty and parents, set a vision for improvement, and hire the right people. The majority of principals who head schools that serve low-income students leave before they can make lasting changes. The ones who remain in the profession often move to schools that serve more affluent students whose needs are less overwhelming. The departure of a principal, in turn, often sets off an exodus of teachers. School culture can also be disrupted, and parent engagement wavers. Looking broadly at the effect of principal turnover on student learning, a researcher from Mount Holyoke College studied 12 years of data from North Carolina public schools. They found that when principals leave, student achievement generally  declines for two years.

Anyone have ideas on how to retain good principals? Is the job becoming too demanding?

A former middle school principal told me her job had dozens of moving parts, and most had nothing to do with academics. She described a week where she had to deal with a leak in the roof over the gym, a spate of car break-ins in the teachers' parking lot and a parent who allegedly stole funds from the booster club concession stand. All of that chaos erupted during a week when she was supposed to spend half of each day observing teachers.

Reader Comments ...

About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.