October is National Principals Month:
What Do We Know About Attracting, Retaining and Growing Great Leaders

by Jim Lynch, Executive Director, Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA)

School principals influence the school culture and the instructional quality of whole systems of teachers.[i] Leaders’ effect on students contributes to twenty-five percent of the total school influences on students’ academic performance.[ii] Therefore, school districts have an enormous interest to attract, retain and continually improve strong school leaders. 

Principal Turnover: Our National Problem of Practice

While developing student-centered cultures as well as attracting and retaining high-quality teachers are critical strategies for school leaders to improve their schools, there is another essential element principals must possess: time. Typically, creating meaningful and lasting change in a school is equivalent to turning an oil tanker. For example, research tells us it takes 5 to 10 years for a principal to have a meaningful impact on a large school.[iii] Thus, school leaders need sufficient time to get the job done. Unfortunately, they do not often get it. 

Principals years to turn around school According to the School Leaders Network, only 1 in 4 principals stay in a given leadership position longer than 5 years.[iv] Of those that are brand new to the principalship, fifty percent do not make it past year three.  Besides losing talented people from the profession, the costs of principal turnover are high both in terms of real dollars and its effect on learning environments. For example, preparing and onboarding a new principal carries an average price tag of $75,000 nationally. Furthermore, student performance in math and English language arts falls the year after a principal leaves, with the next principal needing up to three years to make up the loss. 

The Association of Wisconsin School Administrators (AWSA) is a member of the School Leader Collaborative, a consortium of state principal associations dedicated to addressing principal growth and longevity. The consortium believes that in order to keep student performance on a positive trajectory, and save school districts’ needed resources, a two-prong approach of supporting principals must be taken: 1) increase their longevity in the schools they have been hired to lead; and 2) accelerate their effectiveness as school leaders. Principals must have time to create positive, lasting change in their schools. However, since most principals do not benefit from the time needed to transform their buildings, they must be provided support to get better faster. 

The Causes of Principal Turnover and Strategies to Promote Retention and Growth

Main Reasons to Leave Job / Strategies to Retain

To increase understanding of principal turnover and determine which policies and practices might stem the tide, the National Association of SecondarySchool Principals (NASSP) and the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) have partnered to conduct a study of principal turnover.  This research has identified five main causes of turnover and five keys to promoting longevity

1. High-Quality Professional Learning Opportunities

In Wisconsin, we have never been better positioned to provide school leaders with the professional learning opportunities they need.  The Every Student Succeeds Act—better known as ESSA—provided new opportunities for states to invest in school and district leadership and support. In Wisconsin, the DPI is using this opportunity to build the capacity of, and coherence for, school leaders through a collaborative partnership. This effort is  providing learning opportunities along three tiers of professional learning to systematically enhance the leadership capacity throughout the state: 

Tier 1: “Conferences” provide professional learning, information and networking opportunities across the administrator standards (breadth).  The DPI, CESA Statewide Network, WASDA, and AWSA are working collaboratively to provide coherent professional learning for Wisconsin’s educators.  Beginning this year, the partners transitioned three stand-alone professional learning activities into a coherent, jointly-planned conference series called The Wisconsin Leading for Learning Summit and Series.  This approach was designed in response to strong input from the field encouraging state and regional organizations to better coordinate events. 

Tier 2: “Academies” provide focused training to improve leadership practice in high-leverage competencies (depth).  Wisconsin school leaders are being reimbursed 75% of the registration fee for completing an Academy.  In 2019-20, approved Academies include: New Building Administrators, Building Effective Leadership (years 2-5), Leading for Equity, Impactful Coaching, Data Leadership, Leading Professional Learning Communities, and Mental Health and Resilience. 

Tier 3: “Coaching” to further equip leaders with tools and strategies to lead effectively (reflection).  School leaders engaged in the New Building Administrators Academy or the Building Effective Leadership Academy are able to work with a certified coach.  The cost of this high-quality coaching is supported through this collaborative partnership. 

The NASSP/LPI research also found that principals praised preparation programs that offer robust field experiences with strong mentors and/or internships.  Last year, AWSA, DPI and the WI Association of Colleges for Teacher Education began convening meetings among Wisconsin’s principal preparation programs.  The group is working collaboratively on strengthening the practicum experiences for Wisconsin principal candidates. 

2. Support From Strong Administrative Teams With Adequate School-Level Resources

In Wisconsin, school principals report largely positive relationships among principals, with district leadership and the school board.  In 2018, AWSA members reported having good to great relationships as follows:

  • 92% among all the principals in the district
  • 89% between the superintendent and all the principals
  • 83% between the school board and all the administrators 

These healthy relationships provide fertile ground to develop high performance leadership teams.  There are excellent resources for districts to use to assess the current state of their administrative team and plan for continued improvement.  One example would be The District: How Leadership Influences Student Learning, published by the Wallace Foundation.

3. Competitive Salaries

Administrator contracts lay out the shared goals of both the leader and the district. These shared goals include stability, comparability and growth.  School districts should periodically review contracts related to each of these goals.

  • Stability goals:  One can address stability through the length of contract and well thought out longevity incentives.  Many contracts automatically extend each year and include a benefit that promotes longevity.  
  • Competitive goals:  Both parties are interested that the overall compensation is typical within the market.  Districts can select comparable schools based on athletic conferences or similarly sized schools in a region. 
  • Professional Growth Goals:  The school district and the administrator want to ensure that the leader is continuing to learn and grow professionally.  Contracts should support the leader’s membership in professional associations, participation in professional learning including conferences, academies, courses and professional coaching.

4. Appropriate Decision-Making Authority Within the School Context

TableNationally, principals frequently report a lack of decision-making authority on key issues impacting school performance.  In Wisconsin, school leaders have reported having some or a great deal of control over many of these key decisions.
(See Table 1)

This is a topic for administrative teams to reflect upon on a regular basis.

5. Evaluations characterized by timely, formative feedback

Today’s principals need thoughtful support from district leaders.  It is important that evaluation systems are a) focused on the right areas of leadership and b) feedback is provided skillfully.  In Wisconsin, districts have access to high-quality evaluation tools and professional learning opportunities to ensure that both of these objectives are met. 

The Wisconsin Framework for Principal Leadership (WFPL) is a standards-based leadership rubric in used by over two-thirds of Wisconsin’s districts. A recent study demonstrates evidence of validity of the WFPL, based on analysis of performance ratings to independent measures of principal leadership from the annual Educator Development, Support and Retention Survey (Jones, et al., 2018).   In other words, the frame work is focused on the elements of leadership that matters for teachers and students. 

Beginning last year, WASDA and AWSA began offering the Supporting Principal Excellence Academy designed for district leaders to develop the skills to provide ongoing, high-quality feedback to school leaders. The first cohort was extremely well-received and the second cohort begins this month.

If your district would like any assistance in promoting principal longevity and growth feel free to contact AWSA at any time.

[i] Leithwood, K., Louis-Seashore, K., Anderson, S., & Wahlstrom, K. (2004). How Leadership Influences Student Learning Review of Research. Ontario: The Wallace Foundation

Preparing School Leaders for a Changing World: Lessons from Exemplary Leadership Development Programs, 2007, pg. 72.

[ii] Marzano, R., Waters T., & McNulty, B. (2005).  School Leadership that Works: From Research to Results.  Alexandra, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

[iii] The Wallace Foundation. (2013) The school principal as leader: Guiding schools to better teaching and learning.

[iv] School Leaders Network. (2014). Churn: The high cost of principal turnover.


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Elementary Edition - Secondary Edition - District Level Edition