Recent debates about ensuring all students have effective teachers have largely centered on how to recruit, prepare, evaluate, and—more recently—develop them. But these efforts to “build a better teacher” will only succeed if we also succeed in retaining the teachers in which we’ve made these investments. And recent research strengthens the case that there’s one individual who is key to doing so: the school principal.
Nationally, about 1 in 6 teachers leave their schools annually, although attrition is generally more of an issue in low-performing schools. To be certain, some turnover can be beneficial, such as when teachers aren’t a good fit. But consistently high rates of turnover are detrimental for schools and their students, leading to poor staff morale and negatively impacting student outcomes. It’s also costly: states spend $1-2 billion on teacher turnover each year.
In order to help address this problem, researchers have explored a variety of factors that underlie teacher turnover. Of these factors, school working conditions—such as quality of school leadership and staff cohesion—appear to matter most in whether a teacher decides to stay or leave a school.
In a recent study, Susan Burkhauser of Loyola Marymount University builds on this literature by attempting to assess how much principals influence teachers’ perceptions of their schools’ working conditions. By examining schools that experienced a change in principal, Burkhauser attempts to isolate how much of the school-to-school variation in teachers’ ratings of four school environment areas can be attributed directly to the principal.
The author used four years of survey data from the biannual North Carolina Teacher Working Conditions Survey to measure the relationship between teachers’ ratings of their principals and their level of agreement with statements about their schools’ working conditions in four areas: 1) teacher time use (e.g., “The noninstructional time provided for teachers in my school is sufficient”), 2) physical environment (e.g., “The reliability and speed of Internet connections in this school are sufficient to support instructional practices”), 3) teacher empowerment/school leadership (e.g., “Teachers receive feedback that can help them improve teaching”), and 4) professional development (e.g., “Sufficient funds and resources are available to allow teachers to take advantage of professional development activities”).
Burkhauser’s analysis found that the school principal does impact teachers’ perceptions on each of the four school working condition areas, despite some of the survey questions measuring aspects of schools that are less directly within principals’ control. For example, many of the survey items within the teacher time use and physical environment areas reflect issues that are often largely determined by district leadership (often in partnership with unions). Perhaps it should not be surprising then that the author found principals to have the largest impact on teachers’ ratings of teacher empowerment/school leadership, which includes survey items such as fostering trust and mutual respect, making sustained efforts to address teacher concerns, and consistent evaluation procedures—areas where principals wield greater control.
To put the findings into perspective, Burkhauser estimates that the “effect of increasing principal quality by one adjusted standard deviation in perceptions of teacher time use has the equivalent estimated effect of a decrease in seven students per teacher or a movement to a pupil/teacher ratio of 8-1 in the average classroom.” In plain English, this indicates that having a more effective principal could provide teachers with a sense of much greater instructional capacity.
Based on these findings, the author recommends that districts with high teacher turnover assess their teachers’ perceptions of their working environments. If working environment scores are low, districts should think about how to encourage and support principals to improve working conditions that are most under their control, for example by setting up professional development plans that focus on helping principals communicate effectively with teachers, including providing teachers effective feedback on their instructional practice.
The study’s findings are timely, as the recent federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) presents a new opportunity for states and districts to focus on principals’ effectiveness, including their ability to recruit, develop, and retain effective teachers. Under the new law, states may decide to reserve up to an additional three percent of total funds allotted for Title II activities to prioritize and strengthen principals and other school leaders. As part of their work to build a pipeline of effective school principals, states and districts can—and should—utilize Title II funds to better evaluate and support the work of school leaders, including by appropriately assessing and responding to principal, teacher, and student perceptions of the conditions for leading, teaching, and learning in their schools.