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Two years leading a school is not enough time for a principal to create meaningful, lasting effects for students and teachers. Yet 35 percent of principals serve even less time than that, according to new research from the Learning Policy Institute and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. (I read about it at the Education Dive website.) On average, principals are staying at their schools for four years, before leaving for other schools, taking on different jobs within their districts, or simply exiting the profession altogether. This constant leadership turnover in a school is a tragic waste of human capital that has negative consequences for teaching and learning. As Learning Policy Institute chief Linda Darling-Hammond was quoted as saying, “you’ve got to reboot those schools” every time a new principal is hired.

Why do they leave? The study found that departing principals commonly cite reasons such as poor working conditions, lack of resources and support, inadequate professional development, low salaries, high-stakes accountability, lack of decision-making authority, and the overwhelming nature of the job.

I often hear similar sentiments from leaders in the districts I work with, where together we’re striving to adequately prepare principals for a job that’s so complex and high pressure, it almost defies imagination.

The situation can be alleviated, however, when districts choose to make an investment in professional learning and coaching for their current and aspiring school leaders, giving them strategies, tools, and supports to help them balance and focus their actions on the things that really matter most for their students and staff.

But what, specifically, should we be teaching principals?

McREL’s analysis of decades of research on effective principal leadership found 21 distinct actions, behaviors, and responsibilities that have demonstrable positive impacts on student and staff success (see our Balanced Leadership research and resources for more details). These actions can be grouped into four main categories:

  • Successful principals know how to focus themselves and their faculty on doing a small set of items really well that will produce the biggest impact for student success, rather than trying to enact dozens or hundreds of initiatives.
  • Successful principals know how to help inspire, guide, and empower their faculty to embrace change—change in policies, processes, procedures, and programs for students—and to sustain momentum long enough for effects to occur.
  • Successful principals know how to rally their faculty into sharing a vision for what they want to achieve and sharing a belief that as individual educators and as a team they have what it takes to make a difference for their students. In technical terms, they have “collective efficacy.”
  • Successful principals know when it’s best to take command of a decision (directive leadership) and when it’s best to step back and empower others in the building to lead projects and make decisions (shared leadership).

To be a leader means to coordinate a team, and that requires a shared vision and a high degree of trust, and that doesn’t happen by itself, nor does it happen overnight. PD for leaders on these vital concepts and skills ought to be viewed not as an expense, but as an investment in the long-term health of a school, its entire staff, and its students. With this proper level of support and coaching, principals are much more likely to stay in their buildings long enough to enact change, build momentum, and see results.

Just like teachers, and students for that matter, principals deserve a chance to learn how to get great at what they do and to stick around long enough to see the fruits of their labor ripen.

Kent DavisKent Davis, Ed.D., an associate director at McREL, coaches and trains K–12 teachers and administrators on research-based leadership and instructional practices, including principal and teacher evaluation. Dr. Davis also works with school leadership teams on implementing research-based practices to improve student learning. Prior to joining McREL, Dr. Davis served as a teacher, principal, and district-level administrator for 32 years.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Steve Elwood says:

    I could not agree more! I had several one and two year positions due to “being a place holder until the candidate the board wanted was available,” or the direction I wanted to go academically was not supported by the community because it interfered with athletics and extracurriculars. I am now a career firefighter and out of education. Great article!

  • Kent Davis says:

    Thanks Steve. We need great firefighters and educators with a passion for making a difference. Never too late to go back .


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