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How principal turnover hampers high school reform

Posted by Nov 10th, 2009.

I’d like to connect the dots between two stories referenced in the October 30th Ed News Colorado newsletter.  The first is a new report from the National Governor’s Association on “Achieving Graduation for All”.  The second is an “Eye on Research”  article from Education Week related to principal turnover.

The NGA report is pretty standard education report fare.  It first identifies a major problem – the large number of students dropping out of high school.  Second, it identifies the causes – academic failure, disinterest in school, problematic behavior and life events.  And third it recommends comprehensive solutions -  promote high school graduation for all; target youth at risk of dropping out; reengage youth who have dropped out of school; and provide rigorous, relevant pathways to a high school credential.

These recommendations involve both policy levers suited to the constituency of the governors that NGA serves – raising the mandatory age of schooling to 18, forming coordinating councils, establishing early warning data systems — as well as dramatic changes in business as usual – establishing school level intervention strategies, creating new effective schools, turning around low performing schools and awarding credit for performance not seat time.

Not unlike the recent report on teacher effectiveness produced by the Colorado Legacy Foundation, the report is thorough, thoughtful and mostly accurate.[1] The major challenge, of course, remains actually getting schools and the people in them to shift from business as usual to new ways of doing school.

Let’s now turn our focus to the research report in Education Week on principal turnover. The Texas study finds that the very people who lead the schools that have to change, and who themselves have to lead the change process to create schools that do things different, don’t stick around in any given school very long.

In the Texas study of employment data from 1995 – 2008, which looked at more than 16,500 public school principals, the average tenure was about 5 years for elementary school principals, 4 ½ years for middle school principals and slightly less than 3 ½ years for high school principals, the level at which change is most notoriously difficult to achieve.

Because the NGA report focused on high schools and because, having been a high school principal, I know something about the job, let’s focus on that level.  In order to get a feel for how much influence someone who stays for 3 ½ years or less might have, let me tell you something about the annual planning cycle of high schools.  Now this next section isn’t very exciting, but it is the ground level reality of school change, so try to hang in there with me.

By early February of any given year most high schools are printing their course description books for the registration process that will happen shortly afterwards.  In that process students put in their requests for the classes they will take next fall.   Any new offerings have to be decided on by the printing deadline and any changes in the pattern of how students take classes will have to be thoroughly understood by counselors and disseminated to parents and students before the registration process actually begins.

Were a school to want to offer some new course it would typically have to be approved the previous fall by whatever version of a district’s curriculum coordinating council exists or by an education center administrator.  In Boulder Valley School District those decisions are made in November.

What this time line means is that everything that happens in student programming in a principal’s first year on the job has already been decided by his or her predecessor the previous year.  It also means that any changes for the second year of the principal’s tenure would have to be decided on before the first semester of or her first year on the job is complete.

It doesn’t take an organizational rocket scientist to know that a new person on the job needs to spend most of the first year in a new building, learning the culture, building relationships and figuring out what needs to change, in addition to simply learning to smoothly run the organization.  Some might come in and impose big changes, but the history of high school reform suggests that such a strategy will probably not work.

So the new person on the job in their first year, merely shepherds the existing registration processes for their second year down the same path that has always been followed.  That means that year two of their tenure will look a lot like year one of their tenure in terms of course offerings and core programming.

While in principle it might be possible, in the spring of year one to make changes in upcoming teacher assignments, a strategy that can make substantive differences in student learning, there are great risks in doing so.  Changing who teaches what alters the most fundamental working conditions of the staff.  Wisdom suggests that a new principal might want to have built up quite a reservoir of trust before taking such a potentially explosive issue on.  It is possible to autocratically alter assignments, but the change won’t yield the results being sought if the teachers themselves don’t support the change.

In year two,  having completed a full cycle of the school’s functioning, the principal should have ideas for making some changes.  He or she will probably have fewer than five staff development days  along with one two-hour faculty meeting per month, for the entire fall semester, within which to propose those changes and engage the faculty in discussion of them.

With many comprehensive high schools having over 100 faculty members that is quite a complex undertaking.  What are the chances that the new principal will have obtained buy-in from the staff for new ways to do business in time for submitting new courses to the curriculum coordinating council by November or for student registration in March?

I would say the chances are slim, but let’s suppose the stars are aligned for our new principal and he or she can actually get some agreement from the staff in time to restructure some offerings for what will be his or her third year on the job.  Under that best case scenario structural changes will actually begin in year three.  Without the best case scenario, debate and discussion continues throughout year two and by the time the year is over the staff may be ready to commit to some minor changes so long as they don’t interfere with the master schedule which is already in place for year three.

Let’s assume that the principal actually enters year three, with some changes in place.  Again, organizational development experience tells us that things will not go perfectly. Whatever changes are implemented will face obstacles – lack of adequate training, resistance, unforeseen difficulties, new district or state mandates that suck energy away from the school’s focus, unexpected crises, budget cuts, you name it, something will go wrong.

In the best of all worlds, while the changes are being implemented staff will have a chance to focus on the problems, devise strategies for solving them and figure out how to implement those strategies the following year, while perhaps also coming to agreement on some new changes for year four of the new principal’s tenure.  Some of those revisions or new programs will need to be figured out before registration in March, some may have the luxury of a longer decision time framework.

In year four of the new principal’s tenure we might begin to see smoother operations for the first small changes and a rocky start to any new programs.  There might even be some evidence of success for the changes that are in their second year.  But the Texas data tells us that half of the high school principals won’t even make it all the way through that fourth year.

To see real results, the principal would stay and fine tune the first reform efforts he or she has initiated.  By carefully tending to this work, trust will build with faculty and the chances will increase for more substantive reform in the future.  With enough time and enough skill, an administrator might actually make deep changes in how schooling is done.

But the data tells us that few administrators will stick around long enough to make that kind of difference.  And so, before a reform has even had a chance to be tweaked, a new person is on the job and the cycle begins anew. Teachers in the building have yet another experience of reform that is never fully carried out.  It’s easy to see why it  doesn’t take long before non-probationary teachers realize that even the best ideas won’t come to fruition and a wiser strategy is to hang back and wait until “this too has passed”.

The conclusion?  The intractability of high school reform is directly linked to short principal tenure.

In the Education Week article linked to by Ed News, Susan Gates, an economist at the RAND corporation suggestions that this high rate of principal turnover may be a good thing, perhaps resulting from districts holding principals more accountable for student achievement and terminating them when they don’t achieve results.

I’m sure Ms. Gates is an excellent policy analyst, but I have to say she doesn’t know much about schools.  Given the planning cycle I just described how could any principal generate meaningful results in a short period of time?

Why do high school principals leave?  Ed Fuller, the University of Texas researcher who did the study on principal tenure, has it exactly right when he says, “we think the job has outgrown the ability of one person to handle it”.  The new principal is not just responsible for changing the way the school works, his or her first responsibility is to make sure it even works at all.

That means making sure there are teachers in every class, for every period of every school day, that there are staff in every non-teaching position, coverage for every game, and sponsors for every club, as just a start.  The building has to be taken care, the books have to be ordered, the computers have to be fixed, hundreds and sometimes thousands of teenagers have to be supervised and discipline has to be taken care of.

Parents have to be responded to and the district and state to be reported to.  Most high school principals start their days early and spend several nights a week on campus for one activity or another.  Ed Fuller has it right.  The job, whether for the principal or the assistants, is more than can be done by the number of people districts can afford to pay to do it.

But as I suggest, high schools cannot possibly change until good people are willing to stay for the long run.  What happens when they don’t?  Genuine problems continue to grow and fester, providing real fodder for still more policy reports. The shelves are sagging, but the reports will keep on coming until we really get serious about supporting and changing our schools.

Finding a way to keep high quality high school principals and assistant principals on the job would be a start.


[1] See my dissenting commentary on raising the mandatory age of school to 18.

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3 Responses to “How principal turnover hampers high school reform”

  1. Charles Elbot says:

    I agree with Rona’s concern about principal turnover. Below I suggest a deeper application of shared and distributive leadership that could be helpful to sustaining principal tenure.

    There are many ways to view school leadership to both understand its challenges and improve its capacity. Here I look at school leadership and the office of the principal in terms of three qualities—the hand, the head and the heart.

    The “hand” refers to the managerial aspects of leading a school. This includes paying attention to staff personnel agreements, custodial care of the facilities, scheduling students and teachers, meeting all safety requirements and, of course, the budget.

    The “head” refers to instructional leadership. Since the teacher has the biggest single influence on the academic achievement of students, it is paramount that faculty are implementing an excellent curriculum with fidelity and are using the most effective instructional practices such as informative student assessment data.

    The “heart” is about fostering relational trust and an intentional school culture among teachers, staff, students and parents. Relational trust requires ones integrity; it requires competence to make ones commitments a reality; and it asks us to be reliable over time. This is where the school as a whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

    How can one person, the principal, provide all of these qualities, all of the time? In many cases, a particular principal is great at two of these three areas which can eventually result in a school suffering from the principal’s less developed leadership dimension. Unless a school finds an individual who is superlative in all three areas and possesses a high level of time management skills, the school may well not fulfill its potential. Of course, the problem may not surface for years, but the leadership deficit, or weakest link, will most likely be there unless it is addressed.

    Few schools take seriously the substantial capacity associated with shared and distributive leadership even in this era of School Leadership Teams and Collaborative School Committees. In fact, most principals don’t even discuss their personal strengths, weaknesses and preferences with their assistant principals. Instead of having the principal and assistant principal complement each other’s strengths, they each fulfill the traditional roles associated with the positions.

    A school would do well to explore its potential by using a template of leadership that looks at the school through managerial leadership, instructional leadership and school culture leadership. To do this kind of exploration takes openness, vulnerability, trust and personal confidence; it may, also, take skillful outside facilitation.

    I suggest that educators may want to look into supporting school leadership through a process that maximizes the school’s leadership strengths and minimizing its weaker areas. To be sure, there are schools and principals who are already doing this kind of reflective work or who don’t have need of it.

  2. Peter Huidekoper says:

    Both Rona and Charles hint at something I hope many agree on: we ask too much of principals, and they are men and women with different strengths, and so the last thing we need are school districts demanding they now go in and do a much better job of evaluating teachers, more often, more thoroughly. I appreciate what I understand to be Mike Miles’ goal to improve teaching and learning in the Harrison School District, but I can’t buy his solution that all his principals must make 8 monitoring visits per teacher, per semester, for probationary teachers (as I believe I heard him tell us at UC-D on Sept. 22), as well as numerous visits to nonprobationary teachers. Maybe this is what some principals can do well, but it sounds to me like a one-size-fits-all district mentality that decides this is The Right Way for every school leader. Of course teachers need to be evaluated well, many need useful feedback and advice for improvement–but let’s not mandate that this too must be done by the already overburdened principal. There are other folks in the building–some of them better teachers than the principal, people who know a lot more about ways to improve classroom instruction–who can carry this role. Perhaps an example, to Charles’s point, of distributive leadership. Perhaps another example, to Rona’s point, of why principals move on: the central office can make it nigh impossible when it insists–oh yes, and DO THIS TOO (even if you’re not really good at it)!

  3. Alexander Ooms says:

    If we ask too much, I also think we give far too little — both responsibility and control. Principals have so little control over their staffs and budgets, I am not surprised at the churn and lack of both accountability and results. Instead of the ability to hire, evaluate, compensate, and dismiss staff, they are forced to work within the constraints of an unmanageable system where to do all of the above you have to abide first by the constraints of a collective bargaining agreement and then with the demands of a District in response to that agreement. That is an untenable system.

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