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Matt Rourke, AP
South Philadelphia High School Principal Otis Hackney III meets with students during the first day of school Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Philadelphia. About 190,000 students are going back to class Monday in Philadelphia, where parents say severe staffing cuts have created an aura of uncertainty around the new academic year. Officials contend the school district is prepared despite the major budget reductions. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One quarter of school principals leave their jobs every year. Half of new principals quit during their third year, and the highest principal turnover is in high-poverty schools.

This constant churning hamstrings schools trying to improve, as new leaders never settle in and make lasting changes, argues a new study by the nonprofit School Leaders Network, which operates school principal support networks in Hawaii, California, Texas, Florida, Maryland, New York and Washington, D.C.

SLN Texas estimates that the cost of replacing a principal — from the search to the training and mentoring that follows — averages $75,000 each time.

In addition to the transition costs, the school loses out on the growth that quality leaders can offer. The SLN report noted that “not a single school has ever been found to accomplish turnaround achievement without a powerful leader at the helm of the change effort.”

Principals leave because the job entails so much pressure, the report states. Principals are isolated — enjoying little professional networking or development — and yet are held strictly accountable for results, even though they have limited authority to affect change.

The rapid turnover is most severe in high-poverty schools where good teachers and administrators are most needed, says Robert Maranto, a professor in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.

The concerns raised in the SLN report are widely echoed by school leadership experts around the country.

A black box

“In any organization, leadership is critical,” said Amber Northern, vice president for research at the Fordham Institute in Washington D.C. “Someone has to set a vision, share that vision, pull people together to achieve goals and inspire them to do their best.”

One problem is that most still know too little about what makes a good school principal.

“It’s a big black box,” Northern said. “We really don’t know what effective principals do.”

That may be changing. Northern points to groundbreaking research by Jason Grissom at Vanderbilt University, who is prying into that black box from multiple angles. In one project, Grissom has been shadowing principals in Miami and Charlotte, North Carolina. And the Fordham Institute is about to release a report comparing U.S. school leadership to the United Kingdom.

One clue about where this research may lead is found in a pair of pie charts in the SLN report. Together they highlight a mismatch in how America prepares new leadership. The charts compare the resources devoted to preparing principals (which are almost exclusively weighted to internships and formal training) to how principals report they actually learn the job (which is heavily weighted toward mentoring and peer-to-peer learning).

Real support

Most experts agree that a new principal needs a mentor and a support network, the latter being a primary focus the School Leaders Network.

But Maranto draws a sharp line between real mentoring — driven by commitment to the school and the students — and formal but sloppy mentoring where the mentor checks of the box as “done.”

“Too often,” Maranto said, “mentoring means meeting with a person once a month and listening to her complain about how hard her job is.”

A new principal without proper support is awash in difficult decisions every day, said Darline Robles, an education professor at the University of Southern California, who trains aspiring principals.

Distributed leadership is key to tackling that isolation, in addition to mentoring and training.

“Every community and every school has its own culture,” Robles said. “And without mentoring you can’t navigate that.”

Most observers agree that that turnover and bad morale among school principals is the responsibility of the school board and the superintendent. A highly engaged board that hires the right principal, offers them the right authority, and gives them support and professional development can mitigate the pressures that drive principals out.

And yet, one recent study led by Grissom found that the same problems that undermine principals also drag down superintendents. Forty-three percent of school district superintendents leave within three years. That’s already a lot of disruptive churn. But more worrisome was that in the top 10 percent largest school districts, a stunning 71 percent of superintendents were gone in that time.

This does not surprise Robles, who sees stability in governance and leadership at the board and superintendent level as critical in the turnover of principals.

One charter network that does get leadership right, the SLN report suggests, is the Knowledge is Power Program, a highly successful national network of charter schools. KIPP invests $150,000 in preparing and supporting new principals and suffers only 17 percent principal turnover, compared with 29 percent at the average charter.

“I think it’s worth it,” Maranto said of KIPP’s investments in school leadership. “In the U.S. military we spend that much or more in preparing lieutenants and captains.”

But Maranto says that politically it is very difficult to justify those investments to school boards and taxpayers.

Autonomy

The key to retaining quality principals, Northern says, is to pay them more and give them the tools they need to get the job done.

“Let’s pay these people $100,000 more than we do,” Northern said. “If you want a top-notch leader who can make a lot more in the private sector, pay them what they are worth and treat them like a CEO.”

In most large districts the principal has very little power over either budgets or hiring teachers: “If the principal doesn’t have power to get the job done, who’s going to want it?” Maranto asked.

Maranto contrasts the typical principal’s impotence with the small school experiments in New York, where many high schools now have 400 or fewer students. This results in a new form of leadership, where the principal can know every kid and deal directly with teachers. These principals are also given more authority and control over budgets and staff. They have combined that with more intensive leadership training.

It’s hard to pin the results on any one change, but Maranto says that graduation rates in these smaller high-poverty high schools jumped from around 50 percent to around 60 percent: “The biggest gains have been among disadvantaged kids, who were lost in the huge high schools,” Maranto said.

Distributed leadership

While most experts agree that autonomy and authority are critical to principal success, there is also a seemingly paradoxical consensus that principals cannot do it all alone.

“We expect the principal to be a business manager, a CEO, the instructional manager and the discipline person,” Northern said. “They are crumbling under the pressure because we have given them an entirely unmanageable job.”

Part of the answer, the SLN report argues, is “distributed leadership,” which means the principal develops a team of teachers in the school that each take specific pieces of the puzzle and who work together on the whole. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

“There isn’t a principal anywhere who has all the knowledge and skills to support every teacher in their school,” Robles said. “We need to teach our new principals going in how to create those teams.”

Given this seeming paradox, more research may be needed on the balance between autonomy and teamwork.

“We’ve been talking for 20 years about distributed leadership,” Northern said. “But I don’t think we’ve yet figured out what distributed leadership actually look like in practice.”

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