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Concerned About Teacher Retention in Your District? Mitigate the Turnover Cycle by Supporting Your Principals

After a pandemic-induced decline, teacher turnover is on the rise again and now matches or exceeds pre-pandemic levels. This is troubling but not surprising, as most teaching jobs remain too rigid, isolating, and unsustainable, especially given the challenges of COVID recovery.

28% of Teachers Left Their School Last Year

Average School-Level Teacher Turnover Across Districts Since the 2017-18 School Year

We define the pre-pandemic period as the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, the pandemic period as the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, and the post-pandemic period as the 2022-23 school year. For more information, please see our data and methodology notes.

Addressing teacher turnover isn’t easy—and it’s even more complicated when schools face principal turnover, as well. Effective principals are instrumental in improving instruction; cultivating a positive and inviting school climate; contributing to student learning; and creating environments where teachers want to work.i  

Our analysis of five years of teacher employment data from six large, urban school districts across the country highlights that when principals leave their schools, teacher turnover rates are higher. This means that retaining effective principals offers system leaders a powerful opportunity to address teacher shortages. 

1. Principal Turnover—Like Teacher Turnover—Is Back to Pre-Pandemic Levels

Turnover rates for both principals and teachers fell during the peak of the pandemic, as educators at all levels focused on ushering students through remote learning and the eventual return to school buildings. Like teacher turnover, however, rates of principal turnover now match or exceed pre-pandemic levels. 

Nearly a quarter of principals left their schools last year, with some leaving their districts entirely. Importantly, more than half of those who left their school moved into other roles or schools in the same district. This within-district movement can unintentionally exacerbate talent disparities across the community and heighten school instability.


Figure 1: School-Level Principal Turnover Since the 2017-18 School Year

2. When Principals Leave Their Schools, Teacher Turnover Rates Spike

When principals leave their schools, that disruption often has an impact on teacher working conditions and job satisfaction.ii Our analysis shows a strong relationship between principal and teacher attrition. Across all school years in our analysis, teacher turnover rose during the same year a principal left their school. At the end of the 2021-22 school year, less than a quarter of teachers left their school when the principal stayed, but nearly a third of teachers left their school if their principal also left. 


Figure 2: Difference in Teacher Turnover in Schools Where Principal Stayed vs. Schools Where Principal Left


3. Turnover Spikes Are Highest in Schools With the Greatest Student Need

Teacher turnover is highest among schools that serve students with the greatest learning needs and high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students. In these schools, where teachers need strong support, effective leadership is even more critical. When principals move from a higher-need school to a lower-need school in a district, for example, the high-need school is likely to see spikes in already-high teacher turnover rates that further impact student outcomes and experiences. 

Unfortunately, the relationship between principal and teacher attrition is even stronger in schools with high student need. To better understand this relationship, we compared principal and teacher turnover in the 25% of schools in each district with the highest poverty rates to all other schools in the same district. 

We found that when principals leave schools with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students (“highest-poverty schools”), teacher attrition in those schools was 13.5 percentage points higher than in highest-poverty schools that retained their principals. While this trend exists across all schools, the magnitude of this difference is far less pronounced in schools with lower percentages of economically disadvantaged students.  


Figure 3: Turnover Spikes Are Highest in Schools With the Greatest Student Need


High-need schools with 50 teachers, for example, lose an average of seven more teachers in the year that their principal leaves—in addition to the average 15 teachers that also leave each year—compared to high-need schools that retained their principal. While every district’s need profile is different, it’s important for district leaders to unpack their own turnover rates and identify how their school compares to these trends. 


Figure 4: High-Need Schools Lose an Average of 13.5% More of Their Teaching Force the Year a Principal Leaves


What District Leaders Can Do to Support Principals and Mitigate the Turnover Cycle

The data picture is clear: There’s a strong relationship between principal and teacher turnover—especially in the highest-poverty schools. And given how impactful instability can be to students’ outcomes and experiences, mitigating the turnover cycle should be top of mind for district leaders across the country. 

Fortunately, leaders are in a unique position to help boost both principal and teacher retention by:

  • Clarifying principals’ roles, responsibilities, and expectations, while ensuring their workloads are manageable. 
  • Providing flexibility that enables principals to make the best decisions for their school’s context. 
  • Embedding coordinated support structures into principals’ experiences and positioning principal supervisors to bridge the gap between school and district leadership. 
  • Offering competitive, differentiated compensation based on principals’ experience and responsibilities. 

For a comprehensive look at these strategies, read “Retaining Principals to Reduce Teacher Attrition: How Leaders Can Support Principals to Stop the Turnover Cycle.” 


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Data and Methodology Notes:

We analyzed five years’ worth of teacher employment data from six large, urban school districts across the country. Four districts have between 80,000 and 100,000 students; two districts have between 30,000 and 45,000 students. Between 19% and 56% of students in these districts qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on direct certification.

We looked specifically at teachers who were employed in each district on October 1 in each year from 2017 to 2022. We excluded teaching aides, administrators, other school-level staff, and teachers who were not assigned to a school location. We also excluded teachers at school sites that closed or reconfigured grade levels to avoid artificially inflating the rate of teachers moving between schools. 

We calculated turnover rates within each district as the number of teachers who were employed on October 1 of year n and were still employed in the same district on October 1 of year n+1, divided by the total number of teachers employed on October 1, year n.  

We are defining the pre-pandemic period as the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years; the pandemic period as the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years; and the post-pandemic period as the 2022-23 school year. To calculate the average turnover rate in those periods, we took the straight, unweighted average of turnover rates from each school year within the period.  

We calculated cross-district averages as the straight, unweighted average of turnover rates across districts among a given group of teachers. In other words, district size does not affect the relative impact of one district’s experience over another. 

We conducted school-level poverty analyses by sorting schools into quartiles based on the relative poverty levels of schools in their district. Poverty levels are defined by the concentration of students enrolled in that school who are considered economically disadvantaged. We compared schools in the top quartile of poverty for a given district to schools in the top level of poverty for other districts in our sample. 

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