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School performance trajectories and the challenges for principal succession

Linda C. Lee (Department of Educational Administration, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 13 April 2015




The purpose of this paper is to use empirical data on new principals to clarify the connection between different succession situations and the challenges their successor principals face.


The study draws on two waves of interview data from a random sample of 16 new elementary school principals in a major urban school district in the USA.


New principals face distinct practice challenges depending on the nature of their successions. The less planned the succession, the less information and knowledge the new principal tends to possess. The more discontinuous the new administration’s trajectory is with the previous administration, the greater the staff resistance that the successor principal tends to face.

Research limitations/implications

Few studies systematically examine how succession situations differ in schools that are in need of transformation vs those in need of stability. This study addresses this gap by illuminating the varied processes of succession and highlighting specific mechanisms that link these processes to different organizational trajectories.

Practical implications

For district officials, this study suggests that principals in unplanned successions need greater support in quickly gathering information about their new schools while principals in discontinuous successions need greater expertise in how to balance trust-building and accountability in their attempts to promote transformational change.


This study’s primary value is its detailed articulation of how certain characteristics of succession situations are associated with specific types of challenges. Only studies at this level of specificity can be effective guides to practitioners and policymakers who are charged with preparing, selecting, and supporting new principals and their schools.



Work on this paper was supported by the Principal Policy and Practice Study (, funded by research grants from the Spencer Foundation (200900092). The author thanks the principals in the study who gave generously of their time, as well as Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy for supporting this work. The author also thanks James Spillane, Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Kaleen Healey, Lauren Anderson, Allison Kenney, Megan Hopkins, and the reviewers for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this work. All opinions and conclusions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any funding agency.


Lee, L.C. (2015), "School performance trajectories and the challenges for principal succession", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 53 No. 2, pp. 262-286.



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