Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Revolving Door of School Leadership in Charter Schools

Despite the continuous bipartisan support of charter schools, scholars have not reached a consensus on whether charter schools improve student learning. As empirical research continues to demonstrate, building effective schools is more complex than simply introducing autonomy and competition.
According to research (see a study by The Wallace Foundation), principal leadership is second only to teaching among all school-related factors that influence student learning, explaining about one-quarter of all school effects. Given the importance of principal leadership, a growing number of studies have shown that principal turnover matters for schools’ organizational capacities and student learning. Although principal turnover may be desirable if it brings about better principal-school matches and the infusion of more effective practices into schools, high principal turnover is likely to have negative effects on student outcomes, due to loss of school institutional memory, high training costs for new principals, increased teacher turnover, and inconsistencies in school policy, goals, and culture.
As we turn our attention further to principal leadership, now seems an important time to consider the status and impact of principal turnover. To this end, I think it is worthy to consider whether charter schools have higher or lower principal turnover rates than regular public schools. On one hand, an individual is often attracted to leadership in a charter school because of the school’s unique mission. The alignments between principals and school missions are likely to promote principal commitment and retention. On the other hand, as research indicates, charter school principals, compared to their peers at regular public schools, tend to have less administrative experience in schools, less teaching experience, and are less likely to hold at least a master’s degree. Such attributes are often associated with increased likelihood of turnover.
Compared to principals in regular schools, charter school principals tend to have substantially more autonomy over internal issues such as hiring and retaining effective teachers, firing those perceived as ineffective, establishing professional learning communities, and allocating resources to facilitate innovation in instruction. This high level of flexibility and autonomy is expected to result in high job satisfaction, and make principals more likely to stay in their current positions. However, since charter school principals assume many responsibilities, some of which are the same as a district superintendent, a heavier and different workload for charter school principals may increase the risk of “burnout” and turnover.
So far, empirical evidence has shown that charter schools have higher principal turnover than regular public schools. A report from the U.S. Department of Education analyzed data from the Schools and Staffing Survey in 2007-08 and its follow-up survey and showed that 28% of principals in charter schools left their positions, compared to 20% in regular public schools. In Utah, the average annual turnover rate between 2004 and 2010 was 26% in charter schools compared to 20% in regular schools. A report from the New York City Charter School Center shows that average annual principal turnover from 2005-06 to 2010-11 was at least 18.7% for NYC charter schools, compared to at least 3.6% across district schools. In another study conducted by the Center on Reinventing Public Education, 71% of 400 charter school leaders surveyed indicated that they expected to leave their current jobs within five years, and many felt they were struggling in their current schools.
Where do principals go after leaving? Research indicates that regular school principals are often former teachers who desire career advancement within the educational system. The experience of leading a school may serve as a “stepping stone” along a recognized career path. In addition, there are many opportunities for regular school principals to move between schools. HoweverOn the other hand, it is harder for charter school principals to move between charter schools, as they might not “fit” in other mission-driven charter schools. They are also less likely to move to a regular school because of limited credentials and less professional experience in education. Furthermore, there is no known career path for charter school principals within the education system. In this sense, the charter school principal position is likely to be regarded as a “stopping point” instead of a “stepping stone.”
The assumptions about different principal movement patterns between charter and regular schools have been tentatively supported by analysis of Utah data. Among all principals who left Utah charter school positions between 2004 and 2010, 44% changed to non-principal positions within the Utah educational system, 46% left the Utah public school system altogether, and only 10% took principal positions at other schools. In contrast, among all principals who left regular school positions, 50% moved to another school and remained a principal, 25% changed to a non-principal position, and 25% left the system, mostly by retiring. If these patterns hold in other states—most charter school principals change to non-principal positions after leaving—then the charter school sector will face overall principal shortages. This a very significant problem because new charter schools open up every year and need new principals.

Charter schools are vulnerable to high rates of principal turnover because most charter schools are mission-driven, which makes it harder to recruit candidates with the right “fit.” Also, leading a charter school requires many of the same skills as a district superintendent or a CEO. Thus, appropriate preparation programs that target these needs, better working conditions, incentives, sustained professional development, and appropriate peer networks and peer mentoring are recommended to improve principals’ effectiveness and reduce principal turnover in charter schools.

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