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Principals leave their schools at high rates in Philadelphia, new study shows

Charter schools experience higher turnover than District schools, according to a new report by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A new study indicates that principals switch schools or exit Philadelphia’s education system at high rates and that such mobility is concentrated in schools with more high-poverty students and more students of color.

The turnover rate is higher in charter schools than in District schools, according to the study conducted by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium, which aims to engage colleges, nonprofits, and the public education sector in nonpartisan research. Between 2008 and 2016, an average of 35 percent of Philadelphia charters saw a change in principals each year. For District schools, it was 24 percent.

The year-by-year numbers fluctuated, but turnover “is much higher in charter schools,” said the study’s chief author, Matthew Steinberg, of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. The exception was in 2013 when the District closed two dozen schools.

The study also showed that principals in District-run schools are older, more experienced, and more likely to be people of color than those in charters. Charter schools are also more than twice as likely to have a first-time principal. Over the period of the study, 12 percent of District principals were new to the role in any given year, compared to 31 percent of charter principals.

Leadership instability is one factor that depresses student performance. A study that used 12 years of administrative data on North Carolina students showed that principals often leave after a dip in achievement and that it takes five years under new leadership to rebound to prior levels.

“These findings suggest that city and state leaders should identify ways to provide additional supports and resources to principals – particularly novice principals – who are working in schools that serve the most disadvantaged students in Philadelphia,” the report stated.

Philadelphia’s turnover rate exceeds the rates nationally (17.5 percent) and in all of Pennsylvania (19 percent), but it’s the same as Pittsburgh and in line with other urban areas in the state. The national rate for mobility in charter schools is 21.7 percent.

When principals leave, it is generally not for better jobs in the suburbs, the study found. Instead, 45 percent exited education in Pennsylvania (these could include retirees); only 3 percent became principals elsewhere in the state. Among the remaining exiting principals, 27 percent became principals of other Philadelphia schools in the same sector (charter or District), 3 percent switched sectors as principals, and 22 percent continued working as educators in Philadelphia, but not as principals.

Steinberg said that the findings raise questions about how well principals are supported in the city and suggest “a need for evaluation of the recruitment and retention policy. This has lots to do with principal induction and school leader support, particularly in schools that are the most disadvantaged and academically struggling.”

Some turnover is undoubtedly due to particular principals being ineffective or a poor fit for a particular school. But, he said, “assuming some reasonable distribution of effectiveness,” the numbers indicate that principals in the highest-poverty and most-challenged schools need more help.

To reach its conclusion, the study analyzed individual educator records provided by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.