Wanted: sustainable jobs for principals

CMS elementary school assistant principal with a student. Photo Nancy Pierce

The past year has been a tough one for Charlotteans. We witnessed the public firing of our county manager, the incarceration of our mayor, and the forced resignation of our public school superintendent. We’ve experienced leadership transitions at every level of government and in many of the nonprofits that serve the most vulnerable residents of our city.[1] Our public school teacher turnover has hit a 10-year high,[2] and principal turnover has received a lot of publicity.[3]

Our community has a leadership problem—but we are not alone. 

The average superintendent in a large urban district stays 3.6 years.[4]  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ average is 4 years. This means the superintendent turnover is unfortunate, but typical.

Similarly, the numbers suggest that our school principal turnover is also typical. Half of all principals in CMS have been at their current school for less than two years.

  • 62 percent of current CMS principals were appointed since 2012.
  • 48 percent of CMS principals were appointed since 2013.

These numbers are clearly problematic, but like superintendent turnover, this is not a local problem, but a national one. Nationally, 22 percent of principals in urban schools leave their school each year.[5] When we calculate CMS principals’ turnover the same way, we find:

  • 22 percent principal turnover in 2013-2014 for CMS.
  • 26 percent principal turnover in 2014-2015 (as of August 2014) for CMS.

For 2014-15, principal turnover in CMS is slightly above average, but typical. That means we have a problem in our community, and we are not alone.

Nationwide, principals are in a challenging position. As accountability measures increase, principals must balance providing instructional leadership to their school as a whole, supporting teachers and staff, building relationships with parents and community members, serving as a liaison with the district, and meeting yearly progress requirements.[6] Such demands lead to high burnout and high turnover.

High turnover is a big problem, because principals are a key lever to improving student achievement. Too much turnover may lead to instability, loss of teacher commitment, and high training costs. But most important, principal departures are followed by a downturn in student performance.[7]

Leadership turnover has the potential to yield positive benefits, especially if there is a leadership problem (that is, an ineffective principal). But, new principals must be able to recruit high quality teachers, motivate teachers, articulate a school vision and goals, allocate resources, and develop organizational structures to support instruction and learning. Inexperienced principals have likely not mastered such skills.

The downside of principal turnover—teacher turnover, low morale, lower student performance— is more likely if a school has a first-time principal who has no leadership experience at a prior school.[8] Most concerning, the negative impact on student achievement is compounded for high-poverty schools, low-achieving schools, and schools with higher percentages of novice teachers.[9]

CMS principal turnover is consistent with national trends that find higher principal turnover at high-poverty schools.[10] And in CMS, new principals are more likely to be at elementary schools and high-poverty schools.

  • 68 percent of CMS elementary schools have principals in their first principalship.
  • 60 percent of all Title I schools (schools where 75 percent or more of students are economically disadvantaged) have a first-year principal.[11]
  • 51 percent of all principals appointed from 2012 to 2014 were appointed to Title I schools.

These numbers describe a problem with our schools, but also an opportunity. As CMS continues to lead the way for urban districts nationally, it could choose to lead the way in addressing the turnover problem. The best chance for success, however, will be if the whole community decides to help solve the problem.


[1] Price, Mark. "Nonprofits See Exodus of Leaders; Experts Consider the Impact as Charlotte Sees Unprecedented Number of Execs Leave." The Charlotte Observer 30 July 2013: 1A. Print.

[2] http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2013/12/05/4521912/cms-teacher-turnover-hits-10-year.html#.VGIZgvnF8ZU

[3] http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2014/08/23/5124182/cms-wants-principals-to-stay-for.html#.VGIbAvnF8ZU

[4] http://www.cgcs.org/cms/lib/DC00001581/Centricity/Domain/4/Supt_Survey2010.pdf

[5] Battle, Danielle. "Principal Attrition and Mobility: Results from the 2008-09 Principal Follow-Up Survey. First Look. NCES 2010-337." National Center for Education Statistics (2010)

[6] Finnigan, Kara S. "Principal leadership and teacher motivation under high-stakes accountability policies." Leadership and Policy in Schools 9, no. 2 (2010): 161-189; Rice, Jennifer King. "Principal Effectiveness and Leadership in an Era of Accountability: What Research Says. Brief 8." National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (2010); DeAngelis, Karen J., and Bradford R. White. "Principal Turnover in Illinois Public Schools, 2001-2008. Policy Research: IERC 2011-1." Illinois Education Research Council (2011).

[7] Miller, Ashley. "Principal turnover and student achievement." Economics of Education Review 36 (2013): p. 60.

[8] Coelli, Michael, and David A. Green. "Leadership effects: School principals and student outcomes." Economics of Education Review 31, no. 1 (2012): 92-109.

[9] Béteille, Tara, Demetra Kalogrides, and Susanna Loeb. "Stepping stones: Principal career paths and school outcomes." Social Science Research 41.4 (2012): 904-919

[10] Gates, Susan M., Jeanne S. Ringel, Lucrecia Santibanez, Cassandra Guarino, Bonnie Ghosh-Dastidar, and Abigail Brown. "Mobility and turnover among school principals." Economics of Education Review 25, no. 3 (2006): 289-302.

[11] 75%+ Economically Disadvantaged population, N=63