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April 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 7

Research Says / A Principal's Success Requires People Skills

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What makes for a good boss? In 2009, executives at Google turned the company's knack for data mining and pattern finding inward, sifting through thousands of performance reviews, surveys, and other data looking for keywords and insights to answer that question. For Google, finding the answer was crucial: Analyses had shown that the single biggest reason its employees quit the company was having a bad manager.
After more than a year of data analysis, interviews, and reanalysis, Google identified eight traits of good bosses that it incorporated into its training programs. The result was immediate and significant improvement in the quality of supervision (Bryant, 2011).
For much of the company's history, Google had assumed that programmers needed a supervisor with great technical skills to serve as a sounding board when they got stuck. So it was surprising when technical skills turned up at the bottom of Google's list of what makes a good supervisor. What topped the list were soft skills—being a good coach, meeting regularly with employees, expressing personal interest, and asking thoughtful questions to help them puzzle through problems (Bryant, 2011).
This insight, as it turns out, mirrors what education research suggests about the make-or-break traits for successful school principals. The lack of these qualities appears to contribute to the current high turnover rate among school leaders.

Surprisingly Short Tenure

Although no national analysis of principal turnover has been conducted, studies of states and districts have found that "turnover rates for principals range from 15 percent to 30 percent each year, with especially high rates of turnover in schools serving more low-income, minority, and low-achieving students" (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012, p. 906). The average principal stays in his or her current school for only a few years. A Texas study (Fuller & Young, 2009) found that only 39 percent of elementary principals, 31 percent of middle school principals, and 27 percent of high school principals remained in the same schools for at least five years, leading the researchers to observe that the "average high school principal will not see his/her first freshman class graduate" (Fuller, 2012). Even more troubling, many principals are not sticking around long enough to see the results of their improvement initiatives, which can often take several years to bear fruit (Louis, Leithwood, Wahlstrom, & Anderson, 2010).

Negative Effects of a Revolving Door

Analyzing data from Miami-Dade Public Schools, Béteille, Kalogrides, and Loeb (2012) found that the presence of a new principal in a school was associated with a small but significant dip in student performance, even after accounting for the school's prior performance trajectory. They also found that turnover rates were higher for principals in low-performing and high-poverty schools. For example, the turnover rate of schools with F accountability grades (48 percent) was more than double the rate of schools with A grades (19 percent).
On leaving low-performing schools, most of the departing principals transferred to other schools within the district, which suggests they weren't being forced out, but were voluntarily moving to schools with "fewer poor, black, and low-achieving students than their current school" (Béteille, Kalogrides, & Loeb, 2012, p. 912). The vacancies they left were predominantly filled by inexperienced leaders—70 percent of new principals appointed to poor schools in Miami-Dade had no prior experience, compared with 35 percent of those appointed to wealthy schools. Thus, the district was experiencing a revolving door of inexperienced principals who entered the neediest schools and quickly left when they gained some experience.

Overwhelmed and Powerless

Although little quantitative research has been conducted to determine why principals leave their positions, qualitative studies suggest that their turnover may be related in large part to frustration with their inability to improve struggling schools.
For example, Johnson (2005) interviewed 12 principals who quit the profession and found that 9 left because they were dissatisfied with the job. Most reported that they had taken the job out of a desire "to influence and help children" or "work with teachers" as instructional leaders, but they found that bureaucratic roadblocks, overwhelming workloads, and struggles to persuade powerful teacher groups to adopt new initiatives made the job frustrating and unrewarding.
Echoing these findings, a more recent series of case studies conducted by RAND researchers found that a key to principals' retention appeared to be their ability to create "collaboration and cohesiveness" among teachers (Burkhauser, Gates, Hamilton, & Ikemoto, 2012, p. xv), something almost one-half of principals struggled to do. Of the 20 principals studied, only 6 had developed high levels of staff buy-in during their first year. School cohesiveness was linked not only to principal retention but also to gains in student achievement.

Leading Without Authority

The reasons principals cite for leaving suggest that they often find themselves unprepared to meet accountability standards in what Karl Weick (1982) long ago labeled a "loosely coupled" system. Schools, said Weick, are unique environments. Principals are given little authority to select staff, allocate resources, or make programmatic decisions. Unlike leaders in private-sector or military organizations (from which leadership theories are often drawn), principals typically have only indirect control over subordinates.
As a result, effective school leadership is often less about giving orders than about leading through social persuasion, personal connections, and shared leadership. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that one of the key takeaways RAND researchers drew from their case studies was that the most successful new principals spent time meeting one-on-one with every teacher and eliciting ideas for improving student achievement rather than imposing top-down directives (Burkhauser, Gates, Hamilton, & Ikemoto, 2012).
Similarly, a meta-analysis of research on school leadership found that principals' responsibilities most strongly associated with higher student achievement include "culture" (fostering shared beliefs and a sense of school community and cooperation); "situational awareness" (being aware of and responding to undercurrents in a school); and "input" (involving teachers in designing and carrying out important decisions) (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005, pp. 42–43).

More Than Technical Skills

Although instructional and pedagogical knowledge—along with the ability to take charge and set the school's direction—are necessary to be an effective school leader, research suggests that, with principals, just as with Google managers, technical skills are not sufficient. Principals' success, job satisfaction, and willingness to see the job through appear to hinge on their people skills, which enable them to create a cohesive school culture and work with teachers to chart a course for improvement.

Béteille, T., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2012). Stepping stones: Principal career paths and school outcomes. Social Science Research 41, 904–916. Retrieved from

Bryant, A. (2011, March 13). Google's quest to build a better boss. New York Times, p. BU1. Retrieved from

Burkhauser, S., Gates, S., Hamilton, L. S., & Ikemoto, G. S. (2012). First-year principals in urban school districts: How actions and working conditions relate to outcomes. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Fuller, E. (2012, July 16). Examining principal turnover. [blog post] Retrieved from Shanker Blog.

Fuller, E., & Young, M. D. (2009). Tenure and retention of newly hired principals in Texas. Austin: University Council for Educational Administration, University of Texas at Austin.

Johnson, L. A. (2005). Why principals quit. Principal, 84(3) 21–23.

Louis, K. S., Leithwood, K., Wahlstrom, K. L., & Anderson, S. E. (2010). Learning from leadership: Investigating the links to improved student learning. New York: Wallace Foundation.

Marzano, R., Waters, T., & McNulty, B. (2005). School leadership that works: From research to results. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Weick, K. (1982). Administering education in loosely coupled schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 63(10), 673–676.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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