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

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.