Is high turnover of principals a good sign or a bad one?

Interesting dueling quotes in an Education Week story this week on the high turnover among principals and whether it’s cause for concern.

University of Texas researcher Ed J. Fuller, who just released data on the retention rates of newly hired principals in Texas, said:

“We think the job has outgrown the ability of one person to handle it. Nobody is staying long enough to make connections or shepherd a reform through.”

Susan M. Gates, a senior RAND Corp. economist who has studied principals’ career patterns, said:

“If you put someone in the principalship and it just doesn’t work out, do you want to keep them there just because it’s good to have low turnover or do you want to get somebody in there who’s good at the job?”

I have interviewed researchers who aren’t at all bothered by the turnover in education, whether teachers or administrators. Their position is that the work is hard and that some people aren’t cut out for it. If they leave, so be it.

I visited Atlanta’s Parks Middle School Tuesday where principal Christopher Waller is credited with overseeing remarkable academic gains. In literature about the school and its turnaround, I read this quote by Waller explaining why he hired an assistant principal, Gregory Reid,  to deal with discipline.

“If I kept doing all of the disciplinary work, I would never really have become the principal. Having Reid on board has allowed me to be the principal, to deal with the things that principals have to deal with.”

Can principals handle discipline, academics and personnel? Or has the job gown too big for a single person?

19 comments Add your comment


October 28th, 2009
5:25 am

The high school I work in has an excellent system, and the Principal plays a key role. For individual categories such as discipline, personnel, etc., one of the Asst. Principals has that key function, and updates the Principal. The Principal is the enforcement of the “principles”, the ethic that drives the place. Ours makes a priority on educational time in excellent ways, and empowers teachers to do what we do the best way possible. It takes bravery for that, and micromanagers can take a school down.

GA Teacher

October 28th, 2009
6:20 am

I think it depends on the district. Some districts give their principals the autonomy to be a true leader in their own style. These principals are often very successful. On the other hand, many districts have crippled thier principals by mandating this directive and that directive and this method of doing things, etc. This cental office micromanagement turns the principal from a great leader to a middle manager. These districts (most of our urban districts) create an atmosphere that is not conducive to true reform and principals cannot lead in the manner that is best for them. Just my observation.

GA Teacher II

October 28th, 2009
6:26 am

Those that can, become teachers. Those that can’t, become principals.

say what?

October 28th, 2009
7:26 am

Wow I have observed as a parent and then as an employee. One principal was open and receptive to parents helping in the school, and the faculty as a family. The other principal was one who claims that the principalship is her calling in following jesus Christ but acts more like the other JC-Joe clark, bat and all. I think a principal who is comfortable in the position does not mind having assistance and looks forward to sharing responsibilities and watching others grow. Those who have tight reins will only make the situation worse,as staff, parents, and students become confused on expectations and what can be done as the responsibilities are tied to the personality of the principal. Central office should be a resource only not management.


October 28th, 2009
7:33 am

At my middle school we’ve had 3 principals in the last two years and 4 in the last 6. Gwinnett views our low-income school as a dumping ground and gives us failed principals from other schools. One of them was removed from another Gwinnett school due to enormous parent and teacher pressure. Another was actually fired from Cobb. The total lack of consistency makes it impossible for our school to run well.

That being said, even if we did have consistent leadership, the structure of the system wouldn’t allow for real education. Rather, it would allow only for industrialized standards based education.

mystery poster

October 28th, 2009
7:46 am

My 2 cents: I worked in a high priority school for 10 years, and saw 3 principals and many assistants come and go. My experience is that principals in that position are not interested in making the school better. They just want the bullet on the resume so that they can get to a “better” school.


October 28th, 2009
7:57 am

Years ago, you would see principals staying at the same school for 20, 25 years or more. Unfortunately, school systems today have adopted the revolving door policy with regards to administrative personnel. They stay 3 or 4 years at a location, get their ticket punched, and then move on. Most seem to be in the quest to get that cushy central office job.


October 28th, 2009
8:09 am

School boards don’t know how to set goals for administrators. The unions prevent hiring non-academics at competitive salaries because of the seniority system which exists mainly to empower the unions. Aside from transfer to a ‘bad’ or ‘better’ school, there’s no reward for success or penalty for failure. A guy with a high school diploma, who successfully manages 50 employees in a machine shop, is going to do a better job than most school principles.

Math Teacher

October 28th, 2009
8:12 am

Everyone, please do not forget that when they took away an administrators tenure, they turned each and every one of them into a political animal. Fighting for their own existence amid pressures from everyone with an agenda and people wonder why they come and go so fast?

Ed Fuller

October 28th, 2009
8:18 am

I have now done subsequent analyses and found that growth in achievement does not affect the turnover rate, especially in schools that were initially low-performing. Besides that, turnover is high everywhere, not just the low-performing schools, suggesting achievement plays only a small part in the turnover picture.


October 28th, 2009
8:23 am

I have been noticing a trend at some schools where the principal’s job is simply a stepping stone to an increased retirement benefit… someone owes someone a favor, they slide a ready-for-retirement assistant into the principal’s office for a year or two. They have no interest in long-term improvement, only improving their retirement pay. Schools will never get better without continuity at the helm.


October 28th, 2009
8:29 am

In ten years with children in the GCPS system I have seen both. I have seen simply amazing Principals who have moved quickly up the system. I have also seen bad Principals stagnate and bring down a school. In our town we have a great High School which excels in spite of the Administration. The problem is that sometimes, they can’t get rid of them because they have been around for so long or because Football is King. It is tragic when an Elementary School gets a bad Principal. It affects the entire quality of the school because the Teachers know it as well as the parents and when their contracts are up, they move out! Now that we have choice, you can move out of such a school too. If the elementary Principal is never seen in the Hallways, rarely interacts with the staff, and can’t identify a student that they have had for three years; they should be fired inspite of their Phd. Barely escaping the AYP test is NOT success!


October 28th, 2009
8:33 am

After over thirty years in the head of school role I can assure you that its not a matter of the job outgrowing the person, its a matter of the public’s perception and expectations of the principal’s role that has changed. The day of the school being questioned only sporadically for discipline and operations matters is no longer the case. Now its automatically that the School is wrong, teachers and coaches are giving my kid the shaft, and principal’s time being spent on putting out fires of the type that never even surfaced ten and twenty years ago (i.e. lawsuits about what type foods are served and dress code issues). Those who criticize principals as a reflex action and/or compare them to managers of 50 employees in a machine shop have absolutely no idea of the difference in effort between such “businesses” that are required. And interestingly enough, its amazing how much support a principal will get from a parent until their child is involved in a dispute or there is a school regulation that either is inconvenient or against the parent’s child’s wishes. As everyone, I didn’t look forward to going to the office many days. But all in all, my thirty-plus years in that head of school’s seat was enjoyable, filled with fulfillment, and afforded me many, many great memories that I still cherish today. But the bottom line, I think anyone is out of their mind in today’s spoiled and litigous society to seek such a position – with or without the help of additional assistant principal’s to handle the dirty work.


October 28th, 2009
8:52 am

I have to say this is the biggest reason I see. Those that want to do the right thing can become severely hampered by the constant worry that each decision may be their last if it impacts the wrong connected teacher or parent.

“Everyone, please do not forget that when they took away an administrators tenure, they turned each and every one of them into a political animal. Fighting for their own existence amid pressures from everyone with an agenda and people wonder why they come and go so fast?”

mystery poster

October 28th, 2009
8:55 am

We do not have teachers’ unions in GA.

Northview (Ex) Teacher

October 28th, 2009
10:05 am

A more useful avenue for investigation might be to examine the personalities and “management styles” (to be generous) of principals who do not leave. I know of several schools in north Fulton where the teachers would argue that the turnover rate is far too low.

We seem to have gotten away from the conception that “principal” means “principal teacher.” I know they have a tough job, but I also think that much of the blame for our failure to educate our students must be laid at the feet of administrators who are more afraid of parents than of compromising academics. There was a joke about an assistant principal at Northview (you know who you are): “A shiver is in (this person’s office) looking for a spine to run down.”

Perhaps we can expect no more, given the political nature of school boards and the willingness to accommodate any parent demand, no matter how unsound or unreasonable. I often wondered what motivated a person to want to become a school administrator; it seems to me the worst possible sort of middle management hell. The pay is much less than one could earn for a job with the same amount of responsibility in the private sector, and many good people will loathe what you do, even if you are forced to do it. No wonder only the dregs survive.


October 28th, 2009
1:57 pm

I don’t think constant turnover of principals is a good thing unless it is a result of removing a poor administrator. I think a better study would be a review of how many good, experienced teachers transfer out of a high performing school in the first couple of years of a new principal’s tenure. When the County Office fails to take note of this, the schools in my experience tend to falter in their previous high levels of achievement. And even the new teachers are seeking an out as soon as possible under the principal. I can’t understand why the County Office would continue to ignore indisuputable evidence of a principal doing a poor job.


October 28th, 2009
4:16 pm

Lynn makes a valid point about how we can use common sense to determine if a principal is doing a good job or not. Unfortunately, not everyone has common sense. How would central office staff or board members define ‘good teachers’? They will probably assume that the teachers are lazy or are overreacting. It’s the same issue we discussed a few days ago about how to make teachers accountable for student progress. It’s not easy, and that usually means ignored.

Been There. . . Done, well. . . just done!

October 28th, 2009
11:32 pm

Everyone blogging here has incredibly valid points; my response (as a resident of Cobb County) may look like a hybrid of on-target responses from “Ugh”, “Lee”, “katz”, and a few others I’ll mention shortly. Apparently like Gwinnett, Cobb is also hampered by a county office firing directive after directive at the schools regarding things that “need to be done”. . . albeit the “Cobb County School District Way”. Similar to what “Math teacher” and “Marco” say, politics has been the name of the game here for some time, as several high-profile principals (things they’ve done, ignored, and gotten away with) benefited many for a number of years [some "mildly" offensive "leaders" are STILL around, despite the OVERWHELMINGLY NEGATIVE publicity], or upper-level leaders owed a favor to someone OR needed to avoid p—–g off the wrong lawyer or politically-connected individual. One of the district’s leaders? A former football coach who – when appointed to the current position – was considered milder and less politically threatening than the predecessor. One of the former principals? One who used a lawyer to keep the more ethical district leaders at bay (those who disliked the leader’s tactics & dictatorial style, with “secret police”-styled administrative “pets” who spied on other teachers), then ran off so many teachers over the years the district officials finally had had enough of the person. Those who teach in Cobb for more than a few years KNOW which principals to avoid, which are great leaders, and which lay in the vast middle ground where no one really knows whether they’ve greatly impacted their school’s community or not. Some of the “ones to avoid”? Yep, the class of “mildly offensive” ones whose actions/non-actions haven’t yet irked top school officials enough for anything to be investigated. The one principal I highlighted finally committed such egregious acts at the most recent site the district removed the individual from the position. The replacement at the second previous school (middle)? A micromanager type who has to have his/her hands in EVERYTHING going on in the school – not just be aware, but ACTIVELY INVOLVED – even down to how much cleaning spray the janitor in the 6th-grade hall uses when compared to the one in the 7th-grade hall! An atmosphere already politically-charged enough has become so volatile no one expects ANY newly-appointed principal to stay anywhere for more than a few years. DCB, I wish Cobb had more conscientious administrators such as yourself; unfortunately, good ones seem to move on elsewhere, or once they gain a principalship here, they know to keep on the lookout for something better in a less dysfunctional system. If there are skeletons buried beneath the surface (and the odor from some has been wafting to ground level for some time, but no one DARES acknowledge it for fear of retaliation), digging them up WON’T be a laborious process – it has more to do with how many leaders/ex-leaders here will have the stench attach itself to them due to THEIR past misdeeds!