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Posted at 10:15 AM ET, 12/19/2010

'Burn and churn' among charter school principals

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin." This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban
Seventy-one percent of charter school principals expect to leave their posts within five years. That will be a turnover rate of nearly three out of every four principals. As for the actual turnover among charter school principals–-there are over 5,000 charter schools with an average of 400 start-ups annually–-the rate is about the same as regular public schools, according to a recent report. So “burn and churn” among principals scorches even charters where stakeholders are deeply involved in choosing who leads the school.

Turnover in regular urban schools also runs very high. In Chicago, 61 percent of the lowest performing schools have had three or more principals since 2000. In Austin, Texas, 64 percent of high school principals leave after three years.

Revolving door principals lower teacher morale (perhaps increasing teacher turnover as well) and disrupt programs. Newly arrived principals bring a fierce determination to leave their thumbprints on the school and after leaving their marks, they exit early–that is less than five years–seldom helping teachers, students, or the community.

So the “burn and churn” strategy of getting young, idealistic, determined teachers into hard-to-fill posts in urban schools now extends to charter school principals. The New Leaders for New Schools venture and similar efforts to fill the ranks of regular urban schools and charters with young, activist principals whose mantra is: “No Excuses” is undercut by high turnover among principals.

So what? With similar track records of turnover, what’s the big deal about entering and exiting charter school principals?

First, establishing charter schools is a federal solution to low-performing urban schools in the federal No Child Left Behind law and the current Race To The Top federal funding. No longer a novelty, charter schools as a vehicle for parental choice in low-income neighborhoods have become a weapon in the arsenal of most urban superintendents who seek to dismantle failing schools and create effective ones. Second, both research and experience have shown that a principal is a key factor in the success or failure of a school.

So according to the new report: “Leadership turnover in charter schools may be similar to traditional public schools, but charter schools are particularly vulnerable... [because of] the importance of finding a leader with the right ‘fit,’ and because charter schools are often independent and unable to tap into a pool of ready candidates when it comes to hiring.”

Most charter schools are in urban districts and have an ideology-–a mission–-driving their founders (e.g., help Latinos to be the first-in-the-family to go to college, work with African American students in danger of dropping out of school, provide science and arts education to minority students).

These founders and their successors have complicated tasks in mobilizing political and economic support for the mission of the charter school, establishing a separate facility or one within a regular public school, dealing with the governing board, negotiating constantly with district officials who provide funding, and a score of other leadership tasks including managing efficiently a new school and supervising teachers. In short, charter school principals are closer to being superintendents in overall responsibilities, albeit only for one school, than a traditional principal in regular schools.

When the founders leave their charter school, and they do after five-plus years, finding the right person who can carry the ideological torch and continue to manage, politick, and lead instructionally is especially difficult because no national or regional pool of candidates exists and internal plans for succession are AWOL.

Nor have the political, managerial, and instructional dimensions of the job been fully appreciated by charter governing boards. Planning for “leadership succession,” the operating lingo, is uncommon among charter schools, making them vulnerable to demise when founders or second-generation principals exit. That’s why turnover among charter school principals is an issue.

Some of the difficulty in finding replacements who can fit the tough political and managerial demands of leading charters while carrying the torch of distinctive missions will ease as networks of contacts among local, state, and national charter school organizations grow and as “leadership succession” plans become standard procedure (e.g. Aspire charter schools and KIPP already identify and train potential principals).

Recruiting and training charter school teachers to be principals will grow but the unique demands of leading such schools will also continue and stretch far beyond what regular school principals traditionally do. And in the complexity of leading charter schools, a de facto “burn and churn” strategy of principal leadership will limit successes while yielding a steady stream of failing schools.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 19, 2010; 10:15 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban, Principals  | Tags:  charter school principals, charter school teachers, charter schools, larry cuban, principal burnout, principals, school reform  
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Only a review of sports tells us the revolving door players can void a championship team from champ to chump. Why would we expect anything less from business or education?

Posted by: jbeeler | December 19, 2010 2:15 PM | Report abuse

Churn and turn doesn't work with business either.

Posted by: jlp19 | December 19, 2010 2:22 PM | Report abuse

And doesn't 'Burn and Churn' tell us something about the inherent stresses in Education that staff is dealing with?

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 19, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

As long as mega wealthy business folk like Gates, Bloomberg, Broad... try to "dictate" education policy, there are very few principals or teachers who are going to stay in education whether in charters or public schools! The very reasons that administrators and teachers get into the profession and stay in it is being taken away by those in the business world who are arrogant, power hungry and feel that THEY KNOW IT ALL. If they DID KNOW IT ALL, principals and teachers would now be delighting at success. This collecting of tomes and tomes of data on students (and now teachers too) is nothing short of "theater of the absurd" ! Who wants to deal with volumes and volumes of useless paperwork instead of dealing with the students right before them. This "Kaftkaesque" draconian top down protocol creates a very hostile, learning-adverse environment in the classroom. This value added system is tatamount to placing a gun at a teacher's head in front of his/her students and saying, "Now teach. If you don't do well students... we will fire your teacher... oh and by the way... you have to learn this, this and this by this time and take this particular test. So your teacher better teach it. You'd better succeed or else your school will close down." There are so many things the students aren't learning under this test-driven curriculum. They are covering too much material in too little time so they never master one thing well. Poverty is the hidden "elephant in the equation". But Gates wanting to implement a business model scapegoats teachers instead. Students are secondary in all this- how absurd! Who can look into the faces of children day to day and enforce curriculum policy known to be harming children (not helping as Gate's would suggest)??? And we need to stop putting dollar signs on our students' heads... This attitude that we are in an "economic capital competition" with other nations is extremely detrimental. We are truly not creating a nation of innovators by quashing innovation and creativity. The revolving door of principals and teachers should serve as a warning.

Posted by: teachermd | December 19, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

"The revolving door of principals and teachers should serve as a warning."

Unless the plan is to burn out education provided by teachers and principals that is superseded by technology driven education.

Then it it would all make sense, wouldn't it?

Imagine --- "Gee whiz, we can't find any people willing to go into public education - guess we'll have to install a bunch of computers and save human contact for private schools, where our kids go."

Posted by: efavorite | December 19, 2010 8:18 PM | Report abuse

@ efavorite: You're exactly right.

I think its time for people to consider the possibility that the views of our de facto Minister of Education (Bill Gates) -- in relation to what the K-12 school years should be like -- are primarily derived from his own personal experience, as well as his imaginings about general society. They seem to be based on reflections of his own time in school where it was just fine to be socially isolated and glued to a computer screen all day. After all, if it was good enough for him, it should be good enough for all. And naturally, Microsoft will profit quite handsomely from this new trend.

How convenient for Gates to have a tax sheltered foundation that can drive his whole scheme under the auspices of being a do-gooder.

I'm just saying that these are things to be considered. Gates' ideas didn't derive from nowhere. The narratives in this segment are very telling:

Something I read lately said that if Gates was de-billionaired and put in a room with a bunch of people, he would know as much about educating children as the average person sitting there, and maybe even less. Lord help us all.

Posted by: sharonh2 | December 20, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates wants everything his way. He was that way in the computer field.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 20, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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