New Principal Dropout Rate = 23 Percent Over Two Years

While the nation has been focusing on the student dropout rate (30%) and the teacher dropout rate (46 percent in 5 years), a new study conducted by the RAND Corporation found that of the 519 principals studied, almost 12 percent left in the first year and nearly 11 percent left in the second year. Principals in schools that had met their adequate yearly progress achievement targets in the years prior to their placement were less likely to leave, as were principals placed in start-up schools.  New principals were more likely to leave if test scores dipped in their first year. And when those schools hired a new principal, they usually continued to under-perform in the following year, the report noted.

RAND Education, a unit of the Santa Monica, Calif.-based RAND Corp., gathered its data from four sources: a web-based survey of 65 principals administered in 2008, a set of 20 case studies of schools led by first-year principals; district-level data on principal placements for 519 principals, and student-level achievement test scores. For the purposes of this research, first-year principals included professionals in their first school leadership position, as well as principals who were new to a school but may have been principals elsewhere.

The survey also delved into how leaders allocated their time to see if there was a connection between how much time they spent on certain tasks and student achievement. All the principals said they focused most or all of their time on: promoting data use, observing classrooms, creating a healthy school culture, forming leadership teams, and promoting teacher professional development.

The results also point to a common element among successful principals: high levels of staff cohesion. One way to promote that cohesion is to respect prior practices and culture, the study suggests.

“Rather than changing everything or making independent decisions, principals and teachers reported that principals were more successful in garnering teacher buy-in when they consulted with staff to gain information on perceived strengths and weaknesses at the school. Beyond the initial diagnosis, these principals honored school philosophies by incorporating them into their school-improvement strategies,” it notes.

Susan M. Gates, a co-author and a senior economist for RAND, said that  “The principal can have great ideas, be great at data-driven decision making, great even at instruction,” she said. But helping the staff buy into major changes is a subtle skill, she said. “You have to be able to get people on board with your vision.”

Based on the results of this study, Schools of Education need to restructure the way they prepare new principals.  Is it possible to prepare potential principals with the skills they need to address staff concerns as well as prepare them to deal with the demands being placed on education?