Increased Professional Development for Principals and School Leaders is Necessary for Long-Term Retention of Leaders and School Improvement

A recently released School Leaders Network report, entitled “CHURN: The High Cost of Principal Turnover,” found that schools, leaders, educators, and students face significant hardships when districts ignore principal retention. According to the report, 25,000 principals leave their schools after their first year on the job and 50% quit during their third year. High poverty schools are particularly hard hit by churn, with 50% less likely to have the same principal for at least 6 years. The report concludes that this high churn rate for highly qualified principals has particularly significant impacts on struggling schools, hinders student achievement, causes classroom dysfunction, and leads to increased and unnecessary costs to districts for recruiting and onboarding new principals.


The report highlights estimated costs to districts of failing to retain principals:

  • Districts spend an average of $75,000 to hire, train, and onboard a new principal;
  • Human resources costs for principal hiring costs districts $5,580 per hired principal, which translates into $36 million annually for all districts;
  • Limiting principal turnover to 20% turnover could save U.S. districts around $163 million annually;
  • Significant investments in principal preparation, ranging from $50,000 to $150,000 per principal, reduced principal turnover by as much as 70%; and
  • The federal government provides local districts more than $1 billion annually for training programs, but only 2% of those funds are used for ongoing principal support (NAESP numbers).


Additionally, the report notes significant the impacts on student achievement. For instance, the report finds that principal churn causes student achievement drops in reading and math in the year after a principal leaves; it can take students up to 3 years to catch up following that event. Additionally, the report notes that graduation rates are lower in schools with novice principals.


The report suggests that principals need to stay at their schools long enough to successfully affect improvement. Specifically, the report found that “it takes an average of 5 years to put a mobilizing vision in place, improve teaching staff, and fully implement policies and practices that positively impact the school’s performance.”


The CHURN report concludes with four recommendations to improve principal and school leadership perseverance and help solve the dire retention problem:


  1. Invest in Ongoing Professional Development – Districts should establish new policies, priorities, and programs that provide ongoing strong support for principals, including those that foster partnerships, build leadership skills, and create teams of highly-functioning groups to carry out the extensive responsibilities necessary to improve schools.
  2. Engage Principals in Meaningful Network Opportunities – Principals reported that what they need most to “sustain in the profession and impact their schools” is ongoing support with their peers where they can learn in a context relevant setting and have the ability to influence the agenda. Data shows that principals engaged in peer-networking meetings were 14% more satisfied with their job and 7% less likely to leave the profession. In addition to providing principals with learning opportunities, peer professional networks improve retention, increase school improvement progress, and raise student achievement levels.
  3. Provide One-to-One Support – Providing principals with mentors has proven highly effective in improving instructional skills and leadership abilities. A successful mentoring program includes a well-matched coach and principal, a focused approach on leadership, knowledge and work within the existing framework, and support that addresses the specific needs of the principal.
  4. Restructure Central Office Roles and Policies – In order to provide principals with the authority and support to successfully do their job, districts must break down policy barriers that hinder principal success and put in place better support structures. Districts must also have policies that effectively support, develop, and sustain principals–which may include professional development programs, principal accountability and evaluation processes, increased principal access to community resources, and development of specific school improvement targets that involve principals.