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REL Central recently brought education leaders from Colorado and Missouri together for a webinar conversation on a major issue facing education leaders: how to retain quality school and district administrators. Among other implications, administrator attrition can affect long-term planning by state education agencies, interrupt school improvement efforts, and negatively impact schools and students.

As part of the Educator Pipeline Research Alliance, REL Central conducted the study Retention, Mobility, and Attrition Among School and District Leaders in Colorado, Missouri, and South Dakota, which collected data from approximately 6,300 principals/assistant principals and 1,300 superintendents/assistant superintendents to determine the rate at which they were staying, leaving, or transitioning from their positions. One of the key findings of the study was that about half of school leaders were leaving every three years or so, which makes following through on long-term policies and strategies inherently difficult.

“The amount of time it takes to actually move a (school) system is typically 5–7 years,” Executive Director of Colorado River BOCES Ken Haptonstall noted during last month’s webinar. “And yet most of our evaluation systems (and) most of our accountability systems are built on a year-to-year or a three-year clock, and most superintendent contracts are typically on a three-year clock. So, if people are really leaving the profession or moving (on) after three years, on average, you’re not going to have continuity to make changes that really will support good quality student learning. It’s concerning to say the least.”

Retaining quality principals and superintendents is all the more important given challenges with finding quality candidates to replace them. Challenges surrounding the recruitment and development of quality leadership are indeed numerous, especially given the tumult resulting from COVID-19 our profession has experienced in the last year.

“It takes a concerted effort to go and find those leaders,” said Jim Masters of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “The idea of identifying talent wherever it may reside and then in a very intentional way grooming that, cultivating that to the betterment of students’ opportunities is a critical piece and it’s going to take that deliberate effort to find those folks and bring them along.”

Education agencies in Colorado and Missouri have developed strategies to identify and effectively train candidates for leadership roles. For example, the Missouri Leadership Development System, which Masters has been helping to administer as a consultant, has produced a 95% retention rate among principals and superintendents. We explore this program and other strategies for proactively addressing administrator retention, including enhancing professional learning opportunities for potential candidates, at length in the below video:

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