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Education leaders in Colorado, Missouri, and South Dakota were concerned by the numbers of school and district leaders leaving their positions. Knowing that such departures can lead to lower student achievement, higher teacher mobility, and a less positive school culture and climate (Snodgrass Rangel, 2018) as well as increased costs, they partnered with REL Central to conduct a study to investigate the movement of school and district administrative leadership. What they found opens the door for change and supports.

A new REL Central report, Retention, Mobility, and Attrition Among School and District Leaders in Colorado, Missouri, and South Dakota, found that across the three states, nearly half of school and district leaders left their position after three years. Those data raise concerns and hopes for change from the states’ education leaders, who are actively working to improve their schools through a variety of school and district leadership initiatives.

“In Missouri, we know that great leaders lead to great teacher performance and student outcomes,” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Using this study, we will be able to better understand who is leaving so that we can develop strategies to improve retention of these vital educators.”

Data found in the report are designed to help Katnik and others do just that. Using school administrative data for 2015/16 to the 2018/19 school years allowed researchers to identify the percentages of district superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, and assistant principals who stayed in their position after one and three years. Annual rates of retention ranged from 77 percent to 82 percent and are roughly on par with national data that show about an 18 percent turnover rate for school leadership. While the 18 percent turnover rate was expected, discovering that only 51 percent to 56 percent of leaders stayed in their positions after three years affirmed decision-makers’ concerns and strengthened their resolve to make adjustments.

Some of those changes could revolve around creating supports for principals who identified as a racial/ethnic minority, earned a lower salary, or were 40 years old or younger. These principals were 53 percent more likely to move to a different school compared with White principals, 45 percent more likely than higher-earning principals, and 144 percent more likely than older principals, respectively. Likewise, the study found that principals were 200 percent more likely to move to a different school in schools designated by the state as needing improvement and 74 percent to 100 percent more likely for those teaching in schools with lower student performance.

To tackle this, the report suggests that education decision-makers consider strategies coming out of recent research.

“Strategies such as professional learning opportunities, improving working conditions, ensuring adequate and stable compensation, supporting decision-making authority, and ensuring that accountability systems are fair and useful are associated with improved principal attrition,” explained Emma Espel, one of the REL Central researchers who authored the report.

In addition to the combined three-state data, the report highlights state-specific retention rates for district and school leaders. Principal retention rates were 82 percent in Missouri, 78 percent in Colorado, and 74 percent in South Dakota after one year, and 56 percent in Missouri, about 51 percent in Colorado, and 51 percent in South Dakota after three years. Superintendent retention rates followed a similar pattern. Those were about 85 percent in South Dakota, 84 percent in Missouri, and 75 percent in Colorado after one year, and about 59 percent in South Dakota, 57 percent in Missouri, and 52 percent in Colorado after three years.

As districts move forward with the strategies to retain great education leaders, the report suggests that they continue to study factors associated with leader retention.