Stressed out: Two-thirds of DC principals say they may leave job within 5 years, survey finds

WASHINGTON — Citing frustrations over funding, job insecurity and extreme stress, more than two-thirds of principals in D.C. say they may leave their jobs within the next five years, according to a new survey probing the culture of the D.C. public school system.

The survey found 40 percent of public-school principals said they are “very likely” to leave within the next five years to seek a similar position elsewhere and 27 percent said they are “fairly likely” to do so. The percentage of high school principals potentially eyeing the exits is even higher, the survey said.

“Our principals are feeling way too much pressure,” said D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson in an interview with WTOP. “There’s way too much churn; we’re losing a lot of them. These are really serious issues and some that I hope the policymakers will really take into account.”

The survey, carried out by the research firm Untold Research and overseen by the Office of the D.C. Auditor, sent surveys to the school system’s 108 elementary, middle and high school principals. Of those, 47 principals responded to the survey. The results, released Tuesday, come amid increased scrutiny of the school system following a graduation scandal and a series of other well-publicized blunders.

More than than half of the principals surveyed — 54 percent — said they’re under “great stress” every day, compared with 20 percent of principals in a similar national survey.

When asked to cite their greatest concerns, the majority of principals pointed to inadequate funding — not necessarily the amount of money, but the fact that principals have little control over how it gets spent.

“They really wanted a little bit more say. They wanted more flexibility. They wanted to be able to spend some of those dollars in a way that their own student body needed,” Patterson said.

For example, the report cites the experience of one principal who said he wanted to hire an additional reading specialist but was locked into hiring a Spanish teacher instead, because of mandated allocations.

One-year contracts

Another stressor for principals is the fact that they are only guaranteed one-year contracts — a remnant of cost-saving efforts from the 1990s, when D.C. was on the brink of bankruptcy and a federal control board made financial decisions.

The report calls the one-year deals a “destabilizing force” throughout the school system “that reportedly stifle administrator creativity and drive volumes of turnover.”

Educational experts say it can take several years to implement reform-minded educational policies and to see results.

“You can’t really make a decision or do planning … if you have that pressure sort of always at your back that you might not be here next fall,” Patterson said. “It really can have a debilitating impact on individuals.”

The Council of School Officers — the union that represents principals — has pressed the D.C. Council to do away with the one-year contracts. Patterson said the survey findings may help give the issue a new hearing.

The D.C. Board of Education asked Patterson’s office to carry out the survey in the wake of allegations last winter that teachers were pressured to pass students who hadn’t met all graduation requirements.

Pressure to pass

The new survey finds 31 percent of principals said they felt a great deal of pressure to keep up high graduation and promotion rates each year. The percentage was even higher for high school principals — 83 percent of high school principals surveyed said they felt pressured to pass students.

About a quarter of principals, overall, said they knew DCPS teachers who had left their positions because of “undue pressure” around assigning grades and passing students.

In a written response to the auditor’s findings, interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Amanda Alexander said the survey provides important information but that it is “not comprehensive in nature.”

Alexander said the school system surveys principals annually and holds monthly meetings that “intentionally give a voice” to principals.

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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