School & District Management

Better Principal Data Is Critical to Close Equity Gaps, Groups Tell Feds

By Denisa R. Superville — March 30, 2023 5 min read
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A coalition of advocacy groups focused on school leadership is asking the U.S. Department of Education to collect data on principals, including race and ethnicity information, in its next civil rights data collection, which gathers information from districts on school characteristics, staff, educational programs, and climate.

Including information on principals is critical to improving understanding of the nation’s school leaders and where they work, the groups say, and will help state policymakers shape efforts to recruit, retain, and support school leaders, including leaders of color. The data could also be valuable to education programs that prepare and certify principals.

The Civil Rights Data Collection, conducted biennially, includes data on full-time staff in schools, such as teachers and counselors, but does not include principals.

The coalition of about two dozen education groups is also asking the department to disaggregate school-level teacher data by race, ethnicity, and sex.

Absent national data, districts, and states are left to make decisions that may be disconnected from what’s happening in the field, said Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and chief executive officer at the Center for Black Educator Development.

“When you don’t have the starting point, then it’s harder to chart a path forward,” said El-Mekki, a former Philadelphia principal. “People may be pursuing strategies that are not working because they are not understanding who is there, who is coming—not only what would attract [school leaders], but what deters people of color from leadership. What causes higher attrition rates for people of color in leadership?”

Elevating school leadership

Over the last two decades or so, research has shown that principals contribute to about a quarter of the student learning that happens in schools, and they play an important role in teacher retention.

Researchers Jason Grissom and Brandan Bartanen found, in a study of schools in Missouri and Tennessee, that when the schools hired a Black principal, the likelihood that Black teachers would be hired increased. Black teachers’ mobility also decreased, and Black students’ math scores rose, even when the schools led by Black principals didn’t hire additional Black teachers.

The groups cited this research in the comments, which were submitted last year during a public comment period.They followed up in October.

Many of the advocates that submitted the comments to the federal department of education are also part of a campaign to draw one million teachers of color to the profession, along with 30,000 leaders of color.

They include New Leaders, the New York City school leadership development program; TNTP, a teacher-training organization; the Hunt Institute; Deans for Impact, which works to improve teacher preparation; civil rights organization the Education Trust; and the two national organizations that represent elementary and secondary school principals.

Knowing where leaders of color are employed is an important part of fulfilling the campaign’s promise, said Javaid Siddiqi, the president of the Hunt Institute, which is leading the campaign with TNTP.

The data will allow the coalition to identify gaps and develop a data-driven strategy to address the gaps, he said.

“The reality is that 40 percent of schools in America have zero teachers of color. We know that there is a problem without being able to really get accurate timely data, so that is why we see data as a critical function,” Siddiqi said.

While the majority of public school students are students of color, about 80 of teachers and 77 of principals are white, according to federal surveys.

“We do think it’s important to collect principal data, period,” said Jackie Gran, chief officer for policy and strategic initiatives at New Leaders. “We also think it’s really important to collect that race and ethnicity data as we are understanding the importance of leaders of color in the classroom, so that we can figure out how to do more to increase the number of leaders of color in the country.”

Limitations of current principal data

The rules for the new civil rights data collection have not yet been approved by the Office of Management and Budget, part of the White House, so it’s unclear whether the requests from the advocacy groups will be included in the collection for the 2021-22 school year.

Districts, however, are expecting some new reporting categories, as well as others that had been eliminated. The department has already said that it plans to ask schools about virtual instruction.

The best national picture on principals currently comes from the National Center for Educational Statistics’ school-staffing survey, which is a periodic survey of school leaders, and not truly representative, the groups said.

And while some of the information on the race and ethnicity of school leaders is available at the state level, they may mask important district-level distinctions, Gran said.

For example, statewide data may show that a state has a large number of principals of color relative to its student enrollment, but further district-by-district review could reveal that one large district may account for the majority of those principals, meaning that other districts may have large representation gaps.

States may also not use common definitions, El-Mekki and Gran said.

“I just don’t think that every person who is in a decisionmaking space about this should have to fight this battle individually,” Gran said. “When something is so core to public education, it just seems like it should be easier.”

El-Mekki said he’s optimistic that the department will include the request for disaggregated race and ethnicity data for both teachers and principals.

“To me—to us—this is also a civil rights issue,” he said. “It’s a national data-collection agency that should be used to inform practice, to inform research, and inform strategies and plans.”

“When we have this lack of parity, it ends up infringing upon the rights of staff and students,” he said. “Not collecting data means that we are choosing to be ignorant about what’s actually happening in the field; it’s just unacceptable, and we have to do better. Hiding from the data is not going to improve outcomes.”

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