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Commentary: Time to Stop the Revolving Door for School Principals

Jun 20, 2013

Jacques Benninga

Each Spring district offices and school boards decide who will lead their schools for the following academic year.  Many schools will receive new principals.  In this version of The Moral is, Dr. Jacques Benninga of Fresno State’s School of Education writes that often such important decisions have little research to back them up.


If you have children or grandchildren in our public schools, you’re apt to be surprised when they return to school next August.  Many of us can expect to find our children’s school headed by new leadership.  Indeed, up to 20% of the schools in the Central Valley can be expected to have new principals when children come back to school after summer vacation.

Some of these changes are to be expected.  There are principals who retire after long and productive careers.  Others, who did not meet expectations, are transferred.  Still others applied for, and received offers from neighboring districts.  But a substantial number of excellent, proven school leaders will have been laterally moved to lesser performing schools within their districts because of a sense that if they can turn around one school, they can do the same in the next.

It has gotten to be a truism in education—because it is true—that an effective principal is a necessary precondition for a school to be effective.  Decades ago, a U.S. Senate Committee on Equal Educational Opportunity concluded that the principal’s leadership sets the tone of the school.  “If the school is a vibrant, innovative, child-centered place where students are performing to the best of their ability,” stated the report, “one can almost always point to the principal’s leadership.”

So, it’s not surprising that school districts are always on the search for dynamic new leadership.  Many attempt to identify teachers with leadership potential and shepherd that potential through grow-your-own educational programs.  That makes sense.  But moving effective principals from well-run and achieving schools to schools with substantial problems and expecting those new principals to turn those schools around quickly is an unproven strategy for school success and may even be counter-productive.

Moving principals who have been effective in one school to another, more troublesome school often leaves those former schools unprepared to continue on their improvement path, while presenting a new set of problems in the new school, with the incoming principal viewed unrealistically as either a threat or a savior. 

The fact is that across America principal turnover is high, with very little research to back up those important decisions.  Up to one-third of all principals have less than four years in that leadership role.  This trend suggests that decision-makers are not very good at predicting which school leadership change will produce the best results.  In reality, we know very little about the effect of high principal turnover on program sustainability. 

Perhaps a good rule of thumb, therefore, is to leave effective principals in place to continue to work their magic while simultaneously supporting new school leaders with the resources to optimize their potential.  This will result in fewer surprises for us, but more consistency for our children.  And that may be a good thing.

The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.