Principal Attrition and Mobility: Results from the 2008-09 Principal Follow-up Survey

Danielle Battle & Kerry Gruber
The National Center for Education Statistics
June 2010

While there’s no dearth of statistics on America’s teacher-turnover problem, data on principal attrition are sparser. Leave it to the National Center of Education Statistics -- as part of the Institute of Education Sciences’ Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) – to fill in the gaps. This 2008-09 survey of 117,140 public and private school principals casts light on principal attrition rates and mobility patterns, and breaks down findings in a variety of ways (by gender, experience level, attitudes and level of “enthusiasm," and school type, to name a few).

Overall, it finds that nearly one-fifth of principals nationally turned over between the 2007-08 school year and the 2008-09 school year. Of all principals of public schools in the 2007-08 school year, 80 percent remained at the same school the next year. Seven percent moved to a different school, and 12 percent left the profession altogether. Principal turnover was slightly higher in charter schools than in traditional public schools. Twenty-eight percent of charter schools said goodbye to their principals in 2008, compared to 21 percent of traditional publics. Among private schools, 28 percent left.

The report also highlights where principals went. Of public school principals that left in 2007-08, about half moved to a school within the same district. Of principals that left the profession entirely, 45 percent retired. The second largest group of former principals (33 percent) continued working in education in some capacity, but not in a K-12 school. The next largest group of former principals (15 percent) worked in a K-12 school, but not as principals.

Principals with less experience were more likely to move to different public schools, a finding that has serious implications for the most disadvantaged schools that may be assigned less-experienced leaders. The report doesn’t disaggregate the data state by state. Still, we know that leadership turnover – especially in Ohio’s neediest schools – can have significant and negative impacts on student achievement. Fordham’s 2010 Needles in a Haystack report highlighting high-performing, high-need urban schools recognized this and recommended ways to reduce turnover or soften the negative impacts of it, such as by offering bonuses to leaders at hard-to-serve schools, or enabling them to lead more than one school (as a “mini-district”) for a higher salary. To read the report, click here.

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