Staffed Up: Missouri shows ongoing investment in principals pays off

Six years ago, Sabrina Doublin had her doubts about working as a principal during her first year on the job at a rural Missouri school district. But when she joined the Missouri Leadership Development System a year later, those questions about staying in the profession faded.

“I realized I can do this,” Doublin said. “I’m not by myself. I have help.”

Working as a principal can be a lonely job.

“Any time you have a title that no one else has, it’s kind of an isolated position to be in, and especially if you’re a school principal, you’re kind of middle management,” said Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner of the Office of Educator Quality at the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

As such, it’s crucial that there are professional networks like the Missouri Leadership Development System, or MLDS, which provides training and support to anyone aspiring to be a principal or to those who are well into their school leadership careers, he said. MLDS operates through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and began seven years ago.

MLDS has helped to alleviate that feeling of isolation for Doublin, middle and high school principal at the Marquand-Zion District R-VI School District. Under the statewide program, Doublin said she always feels like she has someone to lean on.

Through MLDS, Doublin also mentors two other early career principals, and she always reminds them of this same lesson. “I think that’s the best thing about MLDS is that you really are never alone, so it’s not as scary as maybe it once was.”

What’s behind principal turnover?

Researchers have found when principal turnover takes place, it has tangible negative effects on schools that include lowered student achievement and more teachers leaving the classroom.

By the end of the 2021-22 school year, principal turnover hit 16% nationally — rising 13 percentage points from pre-pandemic levels, a February RAND Corp. report found in its survey of district leaders. A different survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals also showed in 2022 that half of school leaders’ said their stress levels were so high, they were considering a career change or early retirement. 

COVID-19 alone isn’t to blame for recent findings that principal turnover could be increasing since the pandemic, Doublin said.

With public trust declining in education and politicization rising in school communities, pressure is mounting for some principals to the point where it may be driving them away. In January 2022, 48% of surveyed principals said the “intrusion of political issues and opinions into their profession was a job-related stressor,” according to a RAND Corp. report.

“The way that society has changed its opinion of the public school system really has caused more stress on the administrators than anything else,” Doublin said. 

Missouri principal retention improves

Even amid all this commotion of principal turnover and politically-related stress, there are state-backed programs like the Missouri Leadership Development System that show principal retention can still improve with the right supports in place. 

Principal participation in the Missouri Leadership Development System soars

Nearly 73% of principals in the state now participate in the program.

Between the 2016-17 and 2022-23 school years, the number of principals participating in MLDS jumped from 137 to 1,600, according to the department. Overall, there are 2,200 principals in Missouri. 

The retention rate of MLDS principals has consistently exceeded the state average between 9 to 14 percentage points for the last five years, Katnik said. When comparing MLDS principals to non-MLDS principals, that gap grows wider to roughly 20 percentage points, he added.

As MLDS participation rose to 1,600 principals over the last four years, the state average for principal retention has also increased, Katnik said.


Missouri Leadership Development System sees higher principal retention compared to statewide average rates

Missouri’s average principal retention rate slightly increased in recent years, too.

There are nine regional centers with a total of 30 specialists throughout Missouri to support MLDS principals across the state, he said. The program also offers microcredentials for allowing principals to upgrade their certificates without having to get another degree.

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