September 7, 2022
Districts and superintendents continue to struggle with principal turnover rates as high as 21% each year, which is impacting their ability to execute their district strategy, foster student achievement, engage their communities in education success, and retain teaching staff. We’ve already seen how high principal turnover negatively affects internal teams in education, and explored some suggestions to mitigate those impacts.
Now we’ll look at how frequent principal turnover affects students, parents, and the community as a whole. More importantly, we’ll discuss how those groups can actually help a new principal to succeed, and build a strong community where they are more likely to stay long-term.
“I think it’s critical to understand that this isn’t just a job centered around building administration and the tasks principals perform. It’s primarily a job about people.” - Timothy Drake, PhD
What impact does a change in principal have?
Impact on students
You may think that students only care about their principal when they’re in trouble and are sent to the office, but that thinking negates the significance of a principal’s leadership role in the school. Principal decisions and priorities cascade down to students through budget dollars, resource allocation, teacher attitudes, and school culture. These in turn show a strong correlation with student success, safety, and disciplinary issues.
One study by Brookings showed that “test scores decline in the first year of a principal transition, and that the negative effect on test scores continues into the second and third year of the new principal’s tenure.” That impact was compounded each time the principal changed, adding a further 2-3 years each time.
Effective, longer-tenure principals are better at retaining high-performing teachers, leading to increased student achievement. Long-term principals are also more familiar with the students, have built trust and relationships in the school, understand the student’s challenges, and can tailor the district’s strategic plan to those students’ needs.
When principals change frequently, developing trust and student relationships has to start over and over again. Students may become jaded at the lack of follow-through on a previous principal’s initiatives. They may clash with a principal who enacts policies and procedures that fail to account for student diversity or challenges. Principal budget decisions may not reflect where students want those funds to go. This can derail student engagement and achievement, especially if it happens frequently.
Students are rarely consulted about changes at their own schools, particularly at the leadership level, leaving them disengaged and disenfranchised about the decisions that affect them most.
While there are dozens of factors at play in calculating student achievement, and studies on its impact are limited, principal turnover can’t be ignored, and superintendents should be very aware of its implications.
Impact on parents
Parents are a vital resource for a new principal—they have great ideas, and want to be heard. They aren’t consulted nearly as often as they should be, though, given their importance to students’ lives. Parental involvement in schools can ultimately improve student behavior, attendance, and overall achievement—all important goals for a new principal. The impact of principal turnover, then, is very similar to its impact on students. Relationships and trust must be rebuilt, which takes time and effort for both parties.
If that trust isn’t established and parental input isn’t solicited, relationships with parents erode. Without those relationships, parents may lose respect for and faith in the new principal’s capabilities, particularly if they disagree on the school’s priorities or the new principal fails in some way (as we all do in a new role!). Seeing the negative impact of principal turnover on student achievement can further erode that trust and respect.
The more frequent the turnover, the more disenfranchised parents will feel. Ultimately, parents may choose to limit or completely stop their own involvement in the school, further compounding student behavior and achievement issues. Parents with the option available may even move their children to a private or charter school.
While a new principal can’t change the past, it’s vital for them (and their superintendent) to understand the importance of parental involvement, and what impact it can have on their success in the role.
Impact on the community
Communities and schools are deeply intertwined. Community demographic and socioeconomic factors have often been used as predictors of student achievement, and also influence the tenure and effectiveness of school staff.
The other side of the same coin is that high-performing schools with strong leadership can help communities grow and thrive through community pride, involvement, and volunteerism. As such, no principal can succeed without a thorough understanding of the community, which then informs their vision and strategies for their school.
When principal turnover is high, student achievement suffers. Research indicates that this can lead to higher dropout rates, higher crime levels, and, over time, decreased socioeconomic status for the entire area. The community should therefore be highly invested in a new principal’s success.
If a new principal introduces a vision that fails to account for the school’s community—including its demographics, sociographics, and unique challenges—the community will not be engaged to help them succeed.
How can new principals access and empower these groups?
Student voice builds trust and innovation
“The answer is not to standardize education, but to personalize and customize it to the needs of each child and community. There is no alternative.”
- Sir Ken Robinson
Empowering student voice—the expression and reflection of students’ thoughts, ideas, opinions, and values that they share—is one of the most effective ways for new principals to engage and involve their students.
Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated. They’re also more likely to participate in extracurricular activities and volunteerism.
As it relates to new principals, research from the Wallace Foundation notes that student voice is key to developing a strong school culture. Students who feel engaged, supported, and heard make a greater effort to succeed and contribute back to the school, helping the principal achieve their goals.
Principals who encourage student voice can:
- Build credibility and trust with their students
- Access innovative and supported ideas from students to help execute the district’s strategic plan
- Create a sense of ownership for students over their own education
- Increase alignment and engagement with the school and district’s vision
- Get feedback to improve and grow as leaders
Many education leaders are already recognizing the value of student input in their strategic plans. The St. Clair Catholic District School Board recently ran an Exchange, and received over 1,000 student responses. Deb Crawford, Director of Education, summed it up nicely: “[We’ve] got a very strong student voice as part of this plan, and since they’re at the center of everything we’re doing, it’s really important that we do have their voice present.”
Westwood Junior High School took it a step further, and put students in charge of student voice. Using ThoughtExchange, they gathered the responses of over 500 students, and presented the highest priority thoughts to the board to inform the strategy going forward. When asked how the process made her feel, one student noted: “I’ve been to a lot of different schools that have said they were going to change things and they never did it, but it’s the fact that we’re here right now talking to everybody, and they’re listening, and we’re actually trying to change things and make a difference for the school."
Parents are key to student and principal success
"The best education I received was working with people in the community on a grassroots basis. Because what it taught me was that ordinary people, when they are working together, can do extraordinary things."
- President Barack Obama
In its report on school success, the Wallace Foundation concluded that “The challenges of improving America’s schools are so great that it would be impossible to address them successfully without community and parent partners’ being fully involved, supportive and understanding.”
Just as with student voice, new principals should consult and communicate with parents frequently and openly. Doing so allows the principal to:
- Understand the unique challenges facing students and parents
- Get ahead of parent concerns and complaints which could detract from the ability to execute the district’s strategic plan
- Finding common ground, even on polarized issues
- Access innovative ideas from parents, as well as a pool of volunteers ready to execute on them
- Gain trust and credibility with parents
Principals looking to engage the parents of their students, particularly in more diverse or underserved communities, will have to recognize that traditional methods of communication may not reach everyone. For example, single and working parents may not be able to arrange transportation, schedules, and childcare to attend a focus group or town hall meeting, so principals should use asynchronous and alternative methods to get this feedback.
Parents may also not always feel comfortable communicating in English, so communications with parents should be inclusive and multilingual. Town halls and focus groups in particular can be difficult forums where English is not a participant’s first language, as people tend to speak quickly and interrupt each other.
Uniting communities around their schools
“Education is the cornerstone of our communities and our country.”
- Sen. Bill Frist, M.D.
As we discussed above, schools can impact the success of a community, and vice versa. By uniting communities in support of schools, principals can:
- Understand the unique challenges facing the community as a whole
- Identify potential areas of concern, including those that may impact school safety
- Consider the perspectives of underserved and diverse communities
- Access innovative ideas from the community, as well as a pool of volunteers ready to execute on them
- Gain trust and credibility within the community
- Demonstrate their commitment to building a thriving community
- Obtain taxpayer buy-in on bonds and facilities planning
It’s important to acknowledge that even if community members don’t have children in the school system, they may still have innovative ideas and valid concerns.
Consider these two scenarios:
- Junior high students at the local school have no extracurricular activities, because there’s no funding or volunteers to run programs. These bored teens may turn to graffiti, loitering, or even petty crime, negatively impacting the local businesses. If the principal communicated these concerns, and the community was engaged on this issue, they may rally around programs that teach the kids valuable life skills and keep them occupied.
- Community businesses may be interested in partnering with the high school to offer co-op programs, designed to give credit to students who aren’t thriving in a classroom environment, and prepare them for work. This partnership helps businesses thrive, while also creating productive citizens.
In both scenarios, community participation in the schools helps the students, but also helps the community.
Finding common ground to move forward
A common challenge amongst education leaders right now is what’s seen as an unprecedented amount of division and polarization in their communities. Issues of equity, curriculum, safety, and politics are inundating strategic planning discussions, budget meetings, and town halls.
New principals looking to succeed and build strong ties in their school must use every resource available to tackle these issues–this includes the valuable insights from students, parents, and community members. Finding common ground among these groups is vital to building and executing a strategy to meet the district’s goals and help students thrive.