For Black Administrators, Little Progress and Few Openings

By Susan G. Foster — October 06, 1982 8 min read
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In 1969, when the Rockefeller Foundation first began its leadership training program in an attempt to increase the number of minority administrators, only 17 black superintendents were identified nationwide.

Today, 13 years later, fewer than 100 of the 16,000 school districts in the U.S. are headed by blacks, according to a recent study of women and minorities in school administration by the American Association of School Administrators (aasa). During this same period, the proportion of minority students in the nation’s public schools increased dramatically, particularly in large urban school systems.

It is in these city school systems--now made up predominantly of minority-group students and often in severe fiscal distress--that most black superintendents, and their colleagues at lower levels of administration, are serving.

The aasa survey also confirmed a widely held belief that the number of black men and women in school administration is not keeping pace with the proportion of blacks in the population at large. It found that black men and women occupy only 8.7 percent of the total number of school-administrator positions in the U.S.; blacks constitute 11.7 percent of the nation’s population.

Of the 7,417 school superintendents in-volved in the aasa survey, fewer than than 1 percent were black men and women. The survey included 50 states and the District of Columbia, but only 28 states provided data on both ethnicity and sex of school-system officials.

Superintendencies Reported

About 6.6 percent of the 3,094 deputy or assistant school superintendencies reported on were held by black men and women. And among the 43,008 school principalships reported on in the survey, about 3,332 or 7.7 percent were occupied by black men and women.

In fact, according to the school-administrators’ and other studies, the number of school principalships held by blacks has declined substantially since the mid-1960’s.

For black administrators to attain the proportional representation that blacks have in the larger society, their number would have to increase by 50 percent--a highly unlikely prospect, according to the aasa study.

The study notes that the proportion of minority teachers--the pool from which black administrators would be drawn--is even smaller, 7.8 percent.

“These figures are indeed grim in light of the growth of minority children in the schools,” the report states. It adds that “the underrepresentation of minorities in teaching and school administration” is attributable not just to the “lack of recruitment of more minority teachers, but [to] their lack of preparation to enter the profession, and [to] their inability to obtain a higher education.”

Taking exception to that conclusion, Ronald R. Edmonds, professor of education at Michigan State University and the author of widely cited studies on the qualities of “effective schools,” said that any growth in the number of black administrators will depend largely on “those who are already experienced, certified, and teaching.”

“We cannot look to those presently entering the field as the source for solving the problem,” Mr. Edmonds said, citing the layoffs of young teachers that have resulted from declining enrollments.

Several administrators said in interviews, however, that they believe the current period of retrenchment in education will combine with what they view as the continuation of discriminatory hiring practices to further diminish the number of professional opportunities for black educators.

“We’re not in a growth era, so the opportunities are just not there now,” said Willie W. Herenton, superintendent of the Memphis public schools. “The very small gains we’ve made are the ones we should struggle to maintain.”

Jobs Unattractive

Not only are there relatively few black administrators, according to Charles D. Moody, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, but the majority of them serve in urban school systems with social and economic problems so severe that the jobs are “no longer attractive to white males.”

In his 1980 book entitled The Black School Superintendent: Messiah or Scapegoat?, Hugh J. Scott, dean of the division of educational programs at Hunter College, agreed, contending that the number of black administrators “will rise in proportion to the number of school districts that are becoming bankrupt.”

“Very rarely does a black become superintendent when a district is financially solvent,” Mr. Scott asserted.

“In most big, urban areas, you’re going to find a black superintendent,” said Everett J. Williams, area superintendent of the New Orleans school district. White administrators, he explained, are not anxious to take on school districts that have predominantly black student enrollments.

The Council of Great City Schools estimates that 75 percent of the five million students in the 28 urban shool systems it represents are members of minority groups, and 30 percent are from families whose income is below the poverty level.

“The perception is that the school district is difficult to manage because of the problems of minority students,” Mr. Williams said. White school administrators “don’t know what to do, so they turn the system over to black administrators.”

Mr. Moody, who founded the National Alliance of Black School Educators after conducting a survey of black superintendents in 1970, contended that black superintendents are most often hired by school boards made up mostly of black or other minority members. In addition, the districts usually have a severe budget deficit and receive a considerable amount of federal aid for compensatory education.

In such communities, he added, many citizens have lost confidence in the public schools and are not likely to be supportive.

Positions Lost

Although comprehensive national data on blacks in administrative positions are not available, several regional studies suggest that more blacks occupied administrative positions prior to school desegregation. But when school districts were consolidated, minority administrators often lost their positions or were demoted.

For example, in Delaware the number of black principals declined from 50 in 1964 to 16 in 1970. In Virginia, there were 107 black secondary-school principals in 1964, compared to 10 in 1970.

The most dramatic decline found by the aasa occurred in Kentucky, where 350 black principals were reported in 1964 and only 36 in 1970.

The pattern linking black administrators to predominantly black urban systems that has developed over the years will probably continue for some time, according to Mr. Scott.

“There’s less chance that blacks will be found heading up predominantly white districts,” said the Hunter College dean, who from 1970 to 1973 was superintendent of the District of Columbia school system.

“School boards want an administrator who is experienced,” he noted, and because of discrimination, “there aren’t a great number of blacks who’ve had upper-echelon experience.”

According to Alonzo A. Crim, Atlanta’s superintendent, school boards in predominantly white districts “don’t look for competent black administrators” until the system has “tipped” toward racial imbal-ance. Minority educators, he said, have “tended not to aspire [to positions of leadership] because they’ve been closed out” of administrative positions in predominantly white school districts.

Richard Green, who was promoted from within to become superintendent of the Minneapolis public schools, said that, historically, the position of superintendent has not been filled by black educators. And since the advent of integration, he added, blacks have had even fewer opportunities.

Mr. Green, who has served in the Minneapolis school system throughout most of his career, became one of the few black superintendents to head a major urban school system of mostly white students when he was selected in 1978. “My knowledge of the system and the environment were crucial elements,” he said of his hiring.

“It makes a difference when your knowledge of the environment is strong, depending on the system,” Mr. Green said. “If it’s a closed system and there is [resistance] to having an outsider,” he said, a black will not be given an opportunity regard-less of how well he understands the community.

While acknowledging that “we have a long way to go before we reach parity,” Bruce E. Williams of the Rockefeller Foundation argued that competent black administrators do exist.

“Anyone who says they cannot find qualified black administrators is blowing smoke,” Mr. Williams said. “That isn’t the case any more; the black candidates are there.”

The inability of black educators to penetrate the nonurban and predominantly white school systems, Mr. Moody asserted, is largely due to closed-door policies of local school boards and the inherently discriminatory “old-boy network” that has largely determined career paths and from which blacks have been excluded.

Even though most black administrators are restricted to positions in urban school districts, there are advantages, said Atlanta’s Mr. Crim. Predominantly black districts offer black educators an opportunity to establish themselves as administrators, he noted.

And Mr. Herenton of the Memphis public schools pointed out that “urban schools represent some of the largest school budgets and, in some cities, the largest employers.”

“Many of us welcome and understand the challenge of the job,” Mr. Herenton said. “We are demonstrating that we are indeed effective managers, that we can adjust under some of the most adverse conditions. Unfortunately, we only get one chance. We do not have the luxury of failure.”

But the “most rewarding aspect of my job,” according to Mr. Herenton, has been the opportunity to demonstrate “that all children can learn and that public education can serve them.”

He said there is increasing sensitivity to “the need for more blacks to participate in controlling the destiny of large city school systems where the black constituency is in the majority.”

“Ideally, I hope the day would come,” Mr. Herenton added, “when an administrator would not be identified for a position strictly because of race alone, but because of a combination of ability and attitude that would move the system toward excellence.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 1982 edition of Education Week as For Black Administrators, Little Progress and Few Openings


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