The resignations of two principals and the director of instruction and pupil services – as well as two mid-year teacher resignations – at Gibraltar Area School District demand an answer to this question:
Is this normal?
Principal turnover causes disruptions to districts, can set back student achievement and is such a concern that Jim Lynch, director of the Association of Wisconsin School Administrators, published articles this past October about the all-too-common issue.
But a district losing all three principals in the same year is certainly not common.
“To have that percentage of your administrative team moving, that wouldn’t be normal,” Lynch said. “Generally speaking, in Wisconsin and in the country, principal turnover is an issue of concern. There’s a ton of research on how important the role is. You want the same principal in a building for five or more years to see through improvement efforts and have enough continuity to keep things moving forward. Only 25% of principals in the country stay that long.”
There’s also nothing abnormal about principals wishing to leave their current positions, or planning to return to classroom instruction, or deciding to leave the educational field altogether, according to a 2020 scientific survey by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).
Both organizations see a disturbing trend in principal turnover and administrator “churn” at school districts, said Amanda Karhuse, NASSP director of policy advocacy. In addition, the Brookings Institute reported in 2019 that nationally, about one in five schools lose a principal each year.
Many leave their jobs to step up to higher levels in administration, said Jon Bales, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. The organization supports superintendents and districts that seek them.
“We have anywhere from 50 to 80 superintendent changes every year,” Bales said. “We hire probably 40-plus first-year superintendents each year, and typically those are from the principal ranks.”
Lynch said it’s natural for professionals to move on if they have opportunities for advancement, but districts need to work for retention.
“It should be a priority to have systems in place that support principal tenure,” Lynch said. “Frequent principal turnover is very expensive from a financial standpoint and from a mission standpoint.”
A report five years ago said it costs each school district $75,000 to replace a principal, Karhuse said.
During 2019 and early 2020, prior to the pandemic, LPI’s survey targeted a diverse sample of principals nationwide from schools of all sizes.
“They found at the time, 42% of them were planning to no longer stay in their principalship,” Karhuse said, noting that many expressed a desire to return to classroom teaching, accept an assistant-principal position with fewer demands, or leave the profession altogether. “High-needs schools, low-income and more diverse schools were where the pressure was higher.”
A Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction report in 2018 also found a turnover rate of 16.26% among principals with five to 10 years of experience and 26.11% among principals with 10 to 15 years of experience.
According to the NASSP report in 2020, principals expressed concerns about their need to work extremely long hours for most of the calendar year and requirements to do administrative work without having much support or guidance from their district office. Many wanted to spend more of their time as instructional leaders.
“A lot of them talked about other support professionals that the school needed, like school counselors, a school psychologist,” Karhuse said. “They needed more of those personnel to take the pressure off them. Sometimes they would take a pay cut to become an assistant principal, versus remaining in the principal position.”
In the NASSP survey, many principals said they became overwhelmed by their “high-stakes accountability” for their job evaluations and the evaluations of district successes and failures.
“They said the evaluation didn’t really reflect what was happening in the school, and they did want more support from the district and more professional-improvement opportunities,” Karhuse said.
One type of pressure has eased from 15 years ago, however. Back when the No Child Left Behind Act ruled the land, principals could lose their jobs if students performed poorly and the district failed to meet ever-tightening test-result standards for three years in a row. Karhuse said NASSP supports the learning standards that are in place now. Still, principals experience a great deal of accountability for student performance in high-stakes standardized testing.
Lynch said many principals also express frustration that they had little or no authority pertaining to the school budget or the hiring of staff and teachers. Often, he said, principals are told, “These are the rules around here; go make this happen,” when they are not participating in the decision-making processes.
Frustrations increased during the past year when pandemic protocols piled on new duties.
“We’re hearing about a lot of exhaustion,” Karhuse said. “Most of them had to be in their buildings; they had to make sure kids were fed and had the technology [for remote and in-person learning], had the instructional materials they needed.”
The challenges of reopening under shifting CDC guidance increased responsibilities for administrators who had to manage COVID-19 infection control while navigating the politics of those decisions. It also fell to principals in suburban and rural schools without school nurses to do contact tracing and call for quarantines.
“If teachers had to be out, nobody wanted to take substitute-teaching positions, so the principals were actually teaching classes to cover while teachers were out,” Karhuse said.
Most recently, principals have expressed concerns about not being involved in how to structure summer school this year or how to make up for lost instructional time.
On May 21, NASSP, an elementary-principals association and 90 principals participated in a Zoom meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona regarding “stakeholder engagement” and whether principals are being involved in decisions on how federal relief funds should be used.
They should be involved in those decisions, Karhuse said, because “the responsibility of implementation is going to fall on them.”