NAIS Research: Head Turnover at Independent Schools: Sustaining School Leadership

Executive Summary

Independent schools have faced increasing rates of unexpected head of school turnover throughout the 2010s. About one in five (21.6%) of new and interim heads of school in the 2019-2020 school year followed a head who held the position for three years or fewer according to NAIS DASL data, while nearly one in three schools in this survey report having had three or more heads of school in the past 10 years. While this trend toward rapid head departure ultimately affects a small number of schools, NAIS has found that head of school turnover is exacerbated at all levels by a lack of concordance between heads of school and their boards, with 42% of heads and about 33% of boards reporting having experienced a strained head-board relationship in the past 10 years.  

Following numerous interviews and regional data showing increasing rates of unexpected head turnover, in the summer of 2019, NAIS and the University of Pennsylvania partnered to administer the Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure (FAHST) to all heads of school, board chairs, and board members at NAIS member schools. Among its results were the findings that heads of school are 18 percentage points less likely than board chairs and 9 percentage points less likely than board members to think that their boards foster collaboration. Fewer than half of heads of school agreed that board members accept responsibility for failures and mistakes, yet four in five boards agreed. And while 81% of heads and over 90% of boards agreed that boards understand the most important issues facing a school, just two out of three of heads believed that they actually address these issues effectively.

Additionally, about 33% of heads did not believe that their boards operate within the boundaries of their role, compared to 20% of board members and 15% of board chairs. Despite this, heads and boards do have some common understanding over where to draw the line with stakeholder complaints; 80% of heads and boards agreed that the board chair redirected operational concerns to the head, and 80% of heads and 90% of boards said that board members knew to do the same.

The FAHST revealed a troubling lack of clearly defined transition and onboarding processes for heads and boards; while 90% of board chairs said that they work with new board members on an ongoing basis to ensure that they understand their role in the school, only 57% of heads of school and 63% of board members believed that their chair did so. Half of all board chairs received no formal training or support related to their role. About a quarter of all respondents reported that they are “unsure” whether their school follows an effective chair transition process; 20% of the heads of school found their chair transition process ineffective, compared to just 7% and 11% of board chairs and board members, respectively. Also troubling is that 70% of boards said that they have a transition process in place for new heads of school, but only 55% of heads agreed. Sixty-two percent of heads agreed that their school focuses on long-term sustainability rather than trying to fix a specific problem when seeking a new head, and 31% of the heads were unsure about this; in contrast, over 80% of boards agreed.

Seventy-seven percent of heads said that the board sets achievable goals and then collaborates with the head to prioritize these goals, compared to 95% of board chairs and 89% of board members. Though only 66% of heads of school agreed that the board provides them with periodic feedback on progress toward meeting annual goals, 94% of board chairs and 85% of board members believed that the board did so. And while nine in 10 boards reported that they give their head of school adequate time to achieve goals, only three out of four heads agreed.

At the end of this report, we make several recommendations for identifying and addressing the complex nature of the head-board relationship, solidifying leadership sustainability for years to come. 


In fall 2018, NAIS partnered with the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) Graduate School of Education School Leadership Program to begin exploring head of school turnover. This culminated in the Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure (FAHST), administered during summer 2019 to heads of school, board chairs, and other board members at all NAIS member schools. The purpose of the survey was to more rigorously explore anecdotal reports and regional studies showing an increased rate of unexpected head turnover, often after three years or fewer, in order to gain a better understanding of the factors perceived as influencing it.

Prior research has shown where and why the tenure of the leader of an educational institution can go wrong or come to an abrupt end. Additional work has explored the negative impact that repeated or unexpected departures can have on every aspect of a school’s success. NAIS is now examining how these circumstances and outcomes may differ for heads at NAIS member schools. The results of this survey can help heads of school and board members begin to assess their relationships and governance practices and consider ways to strengthen every aspect of their leadership and partnership.


In summer 2019, 466 heads of school, 108 board chairs, and 247 board members at NAIS schools anonymously completed the 66-question NAIS-UPenn Survey on Factors Affecting Head of School Tenure (FAHST). Ninety percent of heads of school responding to the survey reported being in their role for three years or fewer. Participants’ home regions were roughly representative of the regional membership composition of NAIS, with the largest number of respondents coming from the Mid-Atlantic (21%) and the West (20%).  

Most of the FAHST’s questions asked respondents to strongly agree, agree, strongly disagree, disagree, or respond “not sure” to a given statement. The responses were later aggregated into agree, disagree, and not sure. Respondents were also invited to provide additional feedback on their head-board relationship in open-ended questions throughout the survey. Coding of these qualitative data is still ongoing. This report explores salient portions of the FAHST, with a focus on areas of inter-group discrepancy among its quantitative sections and their implications for modern headships at independent schools.

This report was written by Margaret Anne Rowe, research analyst at NAIS. Recommendations were provided by Anne-Marie Balzano, director of leadership and governance at NAIS. We would like to thank the state, regional, and national associations of independent schools, the team at Educational Directions, and our colleagues at the UPenn Graduate School of Education School Leadership Program and the Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership for their many contributions to this research.

Downloadable Content

More From This Survey

Additional Resources