How Principal Turnover Affects High School Graduation Rates

Monday, June 02, 2014 - 04:00 AM

(Yasmeen Khan)

Does stability in school leadership help increase graduation rates? For students at New York City public high schools that may the case, according to a WNYC/SchoolBook analysis of city data.

Among the 20 schools with the highest dropout rates in 2011 and 2012, all but two saw the principal change during four years prior to graduation. At the 20 schools with the lowest rates, the opposite held true. Overall, schools with higher rates of dropouts from the classes of 2011 and 2012 tended to also have higher turnover among principals. 

In other words, Department of Education data show students at high schools with the same principal from freshman year through graduation generally performed better.

But Prof. Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at University of Pennsylvania, said the correlation was not that clear cut.

“There is a bit of a chicken or egg thing here,” he said. “A bad principal leaving could be a good thing for the school. On the other hand, if there is a revolving door of principals, I have no doubt that is not good for the school.”

That sentiment was echoed by the city's principals' union. Common sense would say that stable school leadership would benefit students, said Chiara Coletti, Council of School Supervisors & Administrators spokeswoman. However, other factors matter, too.

“You could change principals at a school like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science four years in a row and probably still have a 100 percent graduation rate,” she said. “Every student in the school is a high achiever and chances are none of them are going to achieve less because their school leaders changed every year.”

Principal turnover at the city's transfer schools, didn't track graduation or dropout rates at other schools during the same time period. The city has added more transfer schools, like West Brooklyn Community High School, to improve graduation rates. The smaller schools serve students who are behind in credits or may  have dropped out and offer additional tutoring and services. Many of them are too new for reliable data.

Nationwide, a fifth of all principals leave their school at the end of the year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That rate is higher among urban school districts like New York City. 

Further, quality school leadership has direct impact on student performance, according to a paper commissioned by the Wallace Foundation. The authors of "How Leadership Influences Student Learning" found that school "leadership is second only to classroom instruction among all school-related factors that contribute to what students learn at school."

Still, there isn’t a lot of direct research on how principal turnover affects student performance, particularly compared to teacher turnover, Ingersoll said, but similar factors are likely at play. For example, voluntary turnover among teachers greatly outnumbers those who are forced out for discipline reasons.  

“You’re going to drive out your best people first,” he said. “You’re going to drive out the people who have other options and can find another job.”

That appeared to hold true for principals in New York City as well, where principal turnover from 2006 to 2012 was higher at schools that served low-income students.


This report is part of American Graduate, a public media initiative addressing the drop-out crisis, supported by the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. Our ongoing "Educating on the Edge" series is here.


Comments [4]


A fact often overlooked is that the drop out rate is not a "High School only " problem. The vast majority of students that drop out do not have the necessary skills to perform at a rigorous High School. A major frustration involves dealing with students that are retained one year in Elementary school and one year in Middle School. After a year of experiencing Failure in High School, they are no longer required by law to attend school and drop out. The High School is tagged with 100% of the drop out. There is little to no accountability for the Elementary and Middle schools that contributed 10/11 of the drop out.

Jun. 10 2014 06:52 PM
Lou from Brooklyn, NY

One finds success by constantly improving on previous outcomes. Of course every situation is different and needs to be examined by the school community to find out what's really going on; why is the leader of the school leaving?

Unfortunately, in low-income schools that exist in urban environments, the reason is because of low salaries that don't match the amount of hours put in and the high cost of living in cities.

Jun. 03 2014 11:58 AM
fahrender from Dresden, Germany

There is not simple answer here but, schools do need stability and continuity to function well. Teachers and administrators need to be around long enough so they know the students well and the students know them well. The greater degree of transiency in the teaching and administrative staff of a school the less effective the program will be. This truth has been given little consideration with certain reform movements.
I have taught in public schools, a university, and international schools in three different countries over the past fifty-two years. I know as a teacher how difficult it is to become effective in a new school situation. I have seen new principals and school heads spin their wheels or disrupt school cultures needlessly while they were adapting and many of these people were competent and well-meaning administrators. School reformers need to become more mindful of this. Changing principals is a dramatic and obvious symbolic gesture. It doesn't guarantee anything, It can be the wrong thing.

Jun. 02 2014 03:14 PM

I'm always glad when the press looks at actual data, but this isn't "analysis" at all. It's just pointing out a pretty obvious correlation. There are lots of other questions, and lots of other variables, tangled up in the data.

This is the same as saying: losing pro sports teams change coaches more often than winning teams. Or that less profitable companies change CEOs more often than very profitable companies. Of course that's true. Why would a clearly successful organization change leadership, unless it had to?

It's hard to separate leadership quality (among other factors tied to good outcomes) from leadership duration. But if you don't even try, the "analysis" is pointless. It just re-states the obvious reality that when things are going well, a school is less likely to change principals than when things are going poorly.

What would be instructive is looking at schools that changed principals for reasons that had nothing to do with outcomes. For instance, say a principal retired or moved away (assuming you know that "moving" isn't an excuse to get out). Then compare those schools to similar schools, but where the principal didn't leave.

Jun. 02 2014 11:16 AM

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