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Are School Leadership Experts Paying Close Enough Attention to Teacher and Principal Turnover?

by David Edward DeMatthews & David S. Knight - April 18, 2019

The authors of this commentary call for a collaboration between two groups of researchers, school leadership experts and researchers focused on educator turnover, in order to more effectively address teacher and principal turnover.

School leadership scholars and researchers studying educator turnover need to work together to prepare the next generation of principals. Researchers operating mostly outside of educational leadership circles have been focused on the problem of working conditions and educator turnover. Nationally, one in five principals leaves their job every year and almost the same proportion of new teachers leave the classroom within their first five years (Goldring & Taie, 2014; Gray & Taie, 2015). These averages mask far greater turnover rates in high-poverty schools where effective teachers and leaders are needed most. Given the time principals need to engage in sustainable school improvement processes and the pace of turnover, we urge school leadership and educator turnover experts to collectively consider the following question: What lessons can be learned from the research to better prepare principals to address teacher turnover and what new lines of inquiry are necessary to better understand and reduce principal and teacher turnover? We turn to the literature to elucidate the importance of principal leadership and the impact of teacher and principal turnover. We conclude with a response to our questions and commentary on how those responses may guide research and preparation to reduce teacher and principal turnover.




Researchers have documented the ways principals contribute to school improvement and equitable student outcomes. Effective principals have been described as contextually responsive instructional leaders focused on school culture who value inquiry and collaboration, academic rigor, high expectations for teachers and students, and meaningful family engagement (Day, Gu, & Sammons, 2016; Neumerski, 2013). Researchers have also examined the ways principals lead for social justice through interrogating taken-for-granted policies and practices, engaging in Freirean-style dialogue with diverse stakeholders, challenging the status quo through advocacy and organizing, and working with families and communities rather than on them (DeMatthews, 2018; Furman, 2012). The collective body of school leadership research underscores the essential role of the principal. As Sammons, Hillman, and Mortimore (1995) concluded more than 20 years ago, there is little or no evidence of effective schools with weak leadership (p. 17).

The importance of the principalship has led professional and philanthropic organizations and government agencies to invest significant resources in developing the highest quality principals. The Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) (National Policy Board for Educational Administration, 2015) provide important guideposts for preparation. The PSEL are designed to ensure that educational leaders are ready to meet effectively the challenges and opportunities of the job today and in the future as education, schools and society continue to transform (p. 1). Standard Six specifically focuses on building school personnel capacity through recruiting, hiring, and retaining effective teachers.

These standards are critically important to producing the next generation of principals, but educator turnover remains mostly ignored in the school leadership literature and in principal preparation programs. Moreover, a lack of research focused on principal preparation program outcomes provides limited insight into how principals could be prepared to address turnover and last longer in their schools (Fuller, Young, & Baker, 2011).


Extant research on turnover provides some insights into why teachers and principals transfer to different schools or exit the profession, although many questions remain unanswered. To better understand teacher and principal turnover, it is important to consider factors that affect work decisions (e.g., work conditions, salaries) and organizations (e.g., budget cuts, evaluations) (Grissom, Viano, & Selin, 2015). Salaries are an important factor in retaining teachers (Hendricks, 2015), but teachers often decide to leave when they are dissatisfied. Several factors influence teacher satisfaction, including perceptions of student motivation, discipline, administrative support, influence over decisions (e.g., curriculum, textbook adoption), and class sizes (Loeb, Darling-Hammond, & Luczak, 2005). Low-income students and students of color disproportionately attend schools with poor administrative support, limited teacher autonomy, large class sizes, and inadequate resources. Some researchers have argued that teachers are dissatisfied with working with these student populations. Others argue that social factors were most important, including school leadership, school culture, and collegial relationships (Simon & Johnson, 2015).

High levels of teacher turnover in a school will likely mean higher levels of inexperienced teachers. New vacancies require principals to spend more time and resources recruiting and hiring teachers while the lack of veteran teachers will limit opportunities for novice teachers to be mentored. Principals will need to focus resources on basic and repeated professional development so veteran teachers will lose access to advanced professional development opportunities. The stress placed on novice teachers contributes to a greater likelihood of teacher absenteeism or quitting. Both challenges require principals to spend more resources on substitutes.

Turnover and absenteeism also tax the collective knowledge school personnel need to make important decisions. For example, grade-level teams may constantly be changing action plans or acting on false assumptions given the limited institutional memory available within the team. Teams designed to make special education decisions or determine English learner student placements may lack the expertise, family rapport, or knowledge to ensure each student is provided with the appropriate supports.

Studies show patterns of principal attrition are similar to those of teachers. Most principals worked as teachers and share similar experiences and desires, but they may also use low-achieving schools serving high proportions of low-income students of color as “stepping stones” to more desirable schools (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012). An analysis of turnover in a large urban district showed how principals tended to prefer working in “easier-to-service schools with favorable working conditions” (Loeb, Kalogrides, & Horng, 2010, p. 205). Researchers consistently find that when principals leave, it is usually through transfer and not termination, and their departure has detrimental effects on teacher turnover and student achievement (Béteille et al., 2012). In short, turnover is related to working conditions and can create significant leadership challenges that limit a school’s ability to increase capacity and organize in ways that promote achievement and equitable outcomes.



It is critical that school leadership scholars and researchers studying educator turnover engage in interdisciplinary forms of research to further investigate how principal leadership and preparation can reduce turnover and ensure that high-quality teachers and principals are in the schools that need them most. Future research needs to draw upon multiple methods to examine how principal and district leadership can create the conditions that reduce turnover. Researchers might examine whether certain principal characteristics, beliefs, and core values are related to their commitments to serving low-income students of color and how different retention policies and mentoring programs may be more or less effective at reducing turnover (Holme, Jabbar, Germain & Dinning, 2018). Relatedly, preparation programs must consider how they recruit, select, and train aspiring leaders, while program graduates must understand the importance of creating working conditions that support teacher satisfaction. Preparation programs also need to work in close collaboration with districts to recruit aspiring leaders willing to make longer-term commitments to schools, which can be incentivized through district investments into tuition via partnerships with local universities.

While we have provided some recommendations for research and preparation, we encourage greater discussion and engagement between policy researchers focused on turnover and leadership researchers. Through their collaborative efforts, new opportunities and ideas can help improve the educator workforce and transform schools.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22773, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 7:53:17 AM

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About the Author
  • David DeMatthews
    University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    DAVID DEMATTHEWS is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin, where he serves as the director of the UT-Austin Urban Principal Leadership Academy.
  • David Knight
    University of Texas at El Paso
    E-mail Author
    DAVID KNIGHT is the Director of the Center for Education Research and Policy Studies (CERPS) and Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership and Foundations Department at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research focuses on economics of education and school finance. Specific areas of research include equity in educational resource allocation, educator labor markets, and the use of cost-effectiveness analysis.
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