Principals leaving CPS for reasons besides pay: survey

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Heather Y. Anichini president and CEO of the Chicago Public Education Fund. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Most of Chicago’s public school principals flee the district within five years, before they hit their stride in the job — and it’s not because of money, according to a new survey by the private Chicago Public Education Fund.

School leaders at both district-run and charter schools get fed up with generic training and bureaucratic nonsense, and quit, Education Fund president Heather Anichini told a sold-out lunch crowd Tuesday at the City Club of Chicago.

“We just don’t see the return on investment when principals leave too soon,” she said, adding later, “We have to get out of their way.”

Anichini said about 425 principals responded to the survey and ranked pay as the fourth most important reason why they go. More than 650 principals received the survey.

“One of the things we’ve committed to doing is to understand why. Is it that they need to be paid more? Is it that they want to be paid differently?” she said.

“But to be clear, context mattered more. Being able to limit things like compliance, being able to have the kinds of professional development they needed, those things mattered more,” she told the crowd that included CPS’ top two academic officials, Janice Jackson and Denise Little.

Principal turnover is a problem because of the costs of training and coaching new principals, but also because the length of their tenure — and the teachers who remain under them — is just one of many signs of a school’s overall health.

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The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research also has documented how high turnover rates may lead to a school’s disorganization.

Data released Friday by the Illinois State Board of Education show that the schools where teachers and principals stick around the longest don’t typically serve the city’s poorest children, and that some schools with high staff turnover also struggle academically.

The state has an average principal retention rate of about 1.9 principals in a six-year period. CPS’ retention rate is a bit higher at 2.2, and for charter schools, it’s 4.7. Anichini said Chicago’s rate is comparable nationally.

Two topics principals have been publicly vocal about — student-based budgeting, in which CPS gives principals a fixed amount of money per student and lets them spend it the way they see fit, and the cleanliness of school buildings under the private Aramark janitorial contract — did not specifically come up in the surveys, Anichini said.

CPS’ Jackson said CPS was cognizant of duplicate paperwork and requests from central office that could be better streamlined to free up time for principals to spend with children and teachers. She also pointed to a new initiative this year called the Independent Schools Program where about almost 30 strong principals have less central oversight over their schools.

Jackson, who was a principal for 11 years before rising through CPS ranks, said the nature of the role has changed “dramatically” and is now “more complex.”

“Demands are higher for a principal given the state of public education these days,” she told the Sun-Times. “There’s more scrutiny around the work” that requires school leaders to be managers as well as leadership coaches.

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