The Impact of Principal Turnover used statewide data from Missouri and Tennessee to measure the effects of principal transitions — including both promotions and demotions — on school performance and found that turnover lowered school achievement. Specifically, schools that changed principals saw lower achievement in math and reading and higher rates of teacher turnover. However, the effects varied by transition: Schools with principals who exited saw larger negative effects, while schools with principals who were demoted saw no negative effects and in some cases, even positive effects. This variance is likely representative of the circumstances in the school leading up to the transition, the study notes; meaning, exits may have resulted from a declining school climate, while demotions may reflect district efforts to replace ineffective principals with higher-performing leaders.
The study’s authors, Brendan Bartanen from Texas A&M University, Jason A. Grissom from Vanderbilt University, and Laura K. Rogers from the University of Utah, posit that, “While districts should seek to limit principal turnover in general…in some cases, the benefits of replacing a low-performing principal outweigh these costs.” Grissom is one of several researchers commissioned by The Wallace Foundation to update a landmark analysis of the link between school leadership and student achievement.
These latest findings underscore the need for a holistic approach to both cultivating and retaining effective school leadership, a strategy that The Wallace Foundation has been exploring for nearly two decades. A recent study from the RAND Corporation points to a way forward: districtwide efforts to better prepare, support and evaluate school leaders—also known as principal pipelines—can lead to improved student achievement and principal retention, to the tune of eight fewer losses per every 100 principals in a district.
Jaime Whitfield-Coffen, a principal from Prince George’s County (Md.) Public Schools, one of six districts to implement a principal pipeline, shares her perspective on the approach in a recent episode of The Principal Pipeline podcast. “It’s good to just have someone to lean on,” Whitfield-Coffen explains. “I think that that’s one of the reasons why I have stayed in Prince George’s County, is just because I know that there’s a network of people who are there supporting me along this walk, along this journey of being a principal.”