For Women and Minorities, Hurdles on the Path To Leadership

By Blake Rodman — March 30, 1987 16 min read

The expected retirement of almost half of the nation’s 90,000 superintendents and principals over the next decade has raised hopes for redressing what a national commission named this spring as one of the most “troubling aspects’’ of school administration: the gross underrepresentation of women and minorities.

But while experts in the field anticipate gains for both groups, they are warning that a combination of factors—most notably the lack of minority candidates in the administrative “pipeline’'—make substantial increases far from assured.

Much will depend, they say, on whether increasing numbers of women and minorities can be trained and certified to move into the administrative ranks. But beyond that, they add, lies a more formidable task: changing the hiring and promotion practices that have traditionally given white males preferred access to the coveted and higher-paying posts.

“If the systems used to place people still exist, and people’s attitudes do not change, then things will be no better in the future than they are now,’' said Charles R. Thomas, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

Because more women are entering and completing the requisite training programs, most educators say they stand a better chance of making substantial gains than blacks and Hispanics, whose college-going rates have been declining.

“For women, it looks like their numbers will increase,’' said Daniel E. Griffiths, dean emeritus of the school of education at New York University. “But for minorities? There are just so few in the pipeline.’'

Mr. Griffiths was chairman of the National Commission on Excellence in Educational Administration, which earlier this year called for changes in the way administrators are trained and licensed.

In its report, “Leaders for America’s Schools,’' the commission draws attention to “the discouraging lack of minorities and women’’ in school administration, and urges districts to adopt policies that “specifically identify promising candidates for principalships and superintendencies among women and minorities.’'

White-Male Domination

The dominance of white males in the school hierarchy has been aided by an informal process of advancement through “sponsorship’’ that has denied equal access to women and minorities almost as a matter of course, many observers questioned in recent weeks contend.

But assessing the full dimensions of the problem nationally, they and others say, has been hampered by the lack of timely and comprehensive data broken down by race and sex.

“We don’t know if things are staying the same, getting better, or getting worse,’' said Charol Shakeshaft, an associate professor in the department of administration and policy studies at Hofstra University in New York State.

Ms. Shakeshaft, a leading authority on women in school administration, is one of several researchers who criticized the federal government’s failure to collect data on the subject.

The American Association of School Administrators, however, has recently begun gathering such statistical data, through a survey of state departments of education.

Although a number of states have failed to furnish, or do not keep, administrative data disaggregated by sex, race, and ethnicity, 41 states responded to the group’s latest survey, for the 1984-85 school year.

In the states furnishing data by sex, the AASA found that, during that year, 2.67 percent of district superintendents were women.

Roughly 3 percent of the district superintendents in the 31 states that reported data by race and ethnicity for that year were members of minority groups. Of those, 1 percent were black, and 1.36 percent were Hispanic.

Twenty-nine states reported data by sex on public-school principals for the 1984-85 school year. Of the principals in those states, 21 percent were women.

And in the 23 states that furnished data on race and ethnicity, 17 percent of the principals were members of minority groups. Of those, nearly 10 percent were black, 5 percent were Hispanic, and the balance were Asian, Pacific Islander, or of American Indian descent.

In contrast, the number of school-age minorities nationwide represented 27 percent of the total in that age group in 1985, and is expected to rise to 30 percent by 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

The underrepresentation of women in administration, many note, appears all the more startling when viewed in relation to women’s predominance in the teaching force, from which school administrators are drawn. During the 1984-85 school year, 67 percent of the nation’s teachers were women, according to the National Education Association.

Role Models Needed

Such demographic trends give the issue added importance, most observers argue.

“Students need role models,’' said Mr. Thomas, who is superintendent of the North Chicago Public Schools. “Women and minorities can function effectively in leadership positions. Young people are very impressionable, they need to know that.’'

Said Flora Ida Ortiz, a professor of education at the University of California at Riverside: “The school is the organization that most directly transmits the values of our culture. If we support the ideology that there should be widespread opportunity for all, then that opportunity should be evident in our school institutions.’'

Others argue that the range of viewpoints women and minority-group members can bring to a district’s administrative team is also vital.

“Decisionmaking needs to be informed from a variety of perspectives to create the most viable programs for the students,’' said Patricia A. Ackerman, principal of the 11th- and 12th-grade programs at Cleveland Heights High School and the president-elect of the alliance of black educators.

Historical Contex

But opinion differs on the degree to which the administrative pipeline is being altered to meet such challenges.

Although many of those interviewed said they had seen little improvement in the overall situation for women and minorities, the AASA survey data indicate that their representation may be increasing.

For instance, the proportion of women principals jumped 5 percentage points between the 1981-82 and the 1984-85 school years, and the proportion of minority principals rose by 6 percentage points.

Because the number of states responding in 1984-85 did not match the number responding to the earlier survey, some experts warned, however, that such comparisons should be viewed with caution.

“Although it would appear that slight gains are being made, they don’t yet warrant optimism,’' Ms. Shakeshaft noted.

And others said that, in the broad historical context, the situation may actually be worse today than in some earlier decades.

Women and minorities—particularly blacks—have not always been so underrepresented in principalships, a number of researchers point out.

After World War II, for instance, roughly 40 percent of the nation’s elementary-school principals were women. But that balance began to change as salaries in administration increased, making the jobs more attractive to men, according to Barbara N. Pavan, an associate professor of educational administration at Temple University and a former elementary-school principal.

“Once men were available for the jobs,’' she said, “men were hired for the positions’’ and women steadily lost ground.

Even today, most women principals head elementary schools. In 1984-85, the AASA found that 25 percent of the 26,584 elementary principals in the states that furnished data were women. That same year, slightly more than 8 percent of the 14,224 secondary principals were women.

This bulge of women at the elementary level may be an additional factor in the underrepresentation of women in the superintendency, according to Ms. Ortiz of the University of California. It is the high-school principalship, she said, that “is most propelling toward the superintendency.’'

Although no national data on the representation of blacks and other minority groups in school administration were available before the 1960’s, many experts assert that there were more black principals before that time than there are today.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, when schools were consolidated for desegregation or economic reasons, black principals, especially in the South, were often “displaced, demoted, or given new positions with limited decisionmaking power,’' according to a report, titled “Perspectives on Racial Minority and Women School Administrators,’' published several years ago by the AASA

“An inadvertent outcome of desegregation was the decimation of the black principal,’' said Kenneth Tollett, a professor of higher education at Howard University.

Today, others note, black and other minority administrators are most often employed by districts with large minority student populations, frequently in large urban areas.

In fact, many of the nation’s largest school districts now have minority superintendents. Among them are Floretta D. McKenzie in Washington, Alonzo A. Crim in Atlanta, Manford Byrd in Chicago, Nathan Quinones in New York City, Constance E. Clayton in Philadelphia, and Arthur Jefferson in Detroit.

But though such leaders provide minority students with necessary role models, many of those interviewed said, few administrative job opportunities exist for minorities outside of these minority-dense school systems.

“Districts that are likely to hire black superintendents are predominantly minority, and are likely to have financial problems,’' Mr. Thomas of the black educators’ alliance said. “Blacks and other minorities aren’t going to get leadership jobs in the cream or plum districts, where there is an abundance of wealth and high student achievement.’'

School boards in districts that have predominantly white student populations tend not to hire minorities into leadership positions, he said. “They want people who are more like themselves.’'

Discrimination’s Impact

The reasons for the dearth of women and minorities in superintendencies and principalships are numerous and complex, but most agree that discrimination plays a part.

For example, according to Ms. Shakeshaft, studies have shown that, even when as many qualified women as men apply for an administrative post, a man is more likely to be given the job.

“I have difficulty finding reasons why more women aren’t being hired,’' said Ms. Pavan of Temple University. “Women are prepared. When they are in classes, most do as well if not better than their male peers. They are getting the certification they need. And they apply for the jobs.’'

“In many cases,’' she said, “they end up being among the last two or three candidates, but don’t get the job.’'

“I have the feeling that it just ends up being discrimination. It happens so often that you have to wonder.’'

Santee C. Ruffin, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, views the underrepresentation of minorities in much the same way: “We would be burying our heads in the sand if we didn’t say that there are some elements of racism at work.’'

‘Sponsorship’ Network

Many of those interviewed said that, within most districts, an informal system of “sponsorship’’ has worked to limit the access of women and minorities to administrative posts.

Through this informal system, they explained, practicing administrators pick out district teachers or low-level administrators that they believe have leadership potential, establish a type of mentor-protegÀe relationship with them, and guide them along the path toward promotion.

“Sponsorship has a built-in replication formula,’' said Katherine Marshall, an associate professor of education leadership at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. “Sponsors tend to choose people very much like themselves.’'

Because most administrators are white males, she said, it usually ends up that other white males get sponsored, thus excluding women and minorities.

“It’s very difficult to get an administrative position without being sponsored,’' Ms. Ortiz of the University of California said. “As long as sponsorship is the main avenue for promotion, it will be problematic for women and minorities to move into administration.’'

Fannie Lovelady-Dawson, a former junior-high-school principal in Oakland, Calif., who has written on the topic, said that, because women and minorities have had only limited participation in school leadership, they are often unaware of the “subtle institutional dynamics’’ that block their paths up the administrative hierarchy.

“You have to have access to the system if you want to understand the system,’' she said.

Sexual stereotyping can be an additional limitation, according to many observers.

For instance, they said, the belief that men are stronger than women—and can, therefore, be more effective in disciplining students—often leads districts to favor men for assistant principalships. Assistant principals have traditionally been viewed as disciplinarians, Ms. Marshall pointed out.

But because entry into the administrative ranks is often through the assistant principalship, she added, “women get excluded.’'

In a recent survey, the AASA asked its women members to identify roadblocks they had experienced in pursuing a career in school administration. A majority of the 769 respondents cited the following three problems: ineffective recruitment of women for administrative positions, a scarcity of female administrative role models, and limits on available positions because of declining student enrollment and/or consolidation.

Minorities in administration have identified similar roadblocks, according to other researchers.

Women’s Prospects Brigh

The declining enrollments and ensuing school closures and consolidations of the past two decades have exacerbated the problem of gaining entry to the system by limiting the available number of administrative slots. But those who have studied the issue say the large number of retirements expected in the next several years should offset the impact of such developments.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals, for example, has said that roughly one in three of the nation’s 80,000 principals will retire in the next five years. And the AASA has estimated that half of the nation’s nearly 15,500 district superintendents will retire in the next 10 to 15 years.

“We are in transition from a period when there were few administrative positions available to a period when there will be a large number available,’' said Gary Marx, associate director of the AASA “There will be a real opportunity for more women and minorities to move into such positions.’'

For women, the prospects look particularly good. A number of professors of educational administration said that the enrollment of women in their programs had shot up in recent years, and that there are now as many women in their classes as men, if not more.

Data collected by the U.S. Education Department support this view.

Between 1980 and 1985, the most recent period for which information is available, the percentage of master’s degrees and doctorates in educational administration awarded to women jumped from 40 percent to 51 percent.

“That is quite a shift,’' said Vance Grant, a specialist in education statistics for the department.

On the question of quality, many researchers in the field have found that women’s overall leadership and administrative capabilities are equal to, or greater than, men’s.

“The most conservative kind of conclusion that you can reach is that women are at least as good as men,’' said Mr. Griffiths, who headed the national commission on educational administration. “But any other kind of interpretation says women are better.’'

Research shows, he said, that women pay more attention to issues surrounding instruction and to personnel and community relations, he said.

Bolstering this general view, the secondary-school principals’ association has reported that women who have been through one of its principal-assessment centers score significantly higher than men on six of the 12 skill areas evaluated. On the other six areas, men and women score equally.

The association now operates 50 such centers in 35 states. They are designed to identify promising prospective principals by assessing skills needed by principals.

Minority Picture ‘Troubling’

For members of minority groups, however, the prospects for substantial gains in the administrative ranks are not as promising, according to many experts.

They note that the pool of potential minority administrators is being narrowed by a general decline in the college-going rate of minority youths, and by a drop in the number of minority college students choosing education as their field of study. (See Education Week, Nov. 20, 1985.)

Academically talented minority youths who once saw teaching as one of the few professional options available to them are now being recruited for careers in fields promising greater rewards and advancement, many note.

Some of those who have studied the situation say that minority representation in the teaching force—the pool for future school administrators—could fall from its 1985 level of about 12.5 percent to 5 percent by 1990.

Exacerbating this problem, experts have noted, is the broadening practice of testing prospective teachers for competency. A disproportionate share of minority candidates are scoring below state-set cutoff points, and, thus, are being screened out of the profession.

“There are a number of valves along the pipeline carrying those who might someday be school administrators,’' said Robert Palaich, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “We have people who are not graduating from high school, people who are not going to college, people who are not graduating from college, people who don’t elect to become teachers, and people who don’t pass the test.’'

“At each of those valves, you reduce the pool of potential minority administrators,’' he continued. “The fact that we have fewer teachers from minority groups means that we are in trouble for administration.’'

Ms. Shakeshaft of Hofstra said that what she is hearing from colleagues in educational-administration programs is troubling.

“We have few minorities in our programs, and the numbers are not increasing,’' she said.

But a number of observers argue that young and able minority educators currently in the public schools are ready to take advantage of any opportunity to move into, or up, the administrative ranks.

“I believe the job candidates are there,’' Mr. Thomas said. “Some are in jobs that require less of them than they are potentially able to do. And some are in districts that have not promoted them.’'

“If you are serious about recruiting minorities into leadership positions,’' he said, “you can find them.’'

Improving the Pipeline

Still, most experts agree that the pipeline issue must be addressed if minorities are to substantially increase their representation in school leadership posts in the next 20 years.

According to Ms. Ortiz, “We need to dramatically increase the pool of Hispanics and blacks.’' And that, she said, means essentially one thing: “Provide them a better education.’'

In addition, others note, districts must give high priority to recruiting women and minorities for administrative slots, and they must formalize mentoring programs that ensure their participation.

Getting more women and minorities trained and certified is important, Ms. Shakeshaft said, but does not represent an “answer.’'

“There is still a lot of unconscious sexism and racism,’' she maintained. “We have to change the way people view women and the way they view members of minority groups.’'

In addition, Ms. Ackerman, the president-elect of the black educators’ alliance, said people in underrepresented groups “need to be more assertive in promoting that they are interested, qualified, and capable to fill administrative postions.’'

“But the people who are in positions to make hiring decisions,’' she added, “need to be listening and looking to hire them.’'