School & District Management

Districts Struggle to Hire Black Teachers. Is the Solution Hiring More Black Principals?

By Denisa R. Superville — May 31, 2019 8 min read
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School districts across the country struggle to hire staff that reflect changing student demographics. But could the answer to that ongoing problem lie in developing a strategy to hire more principals of color?

A working paper by Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, and Brendan Bartanen, a doctoral student at the university, strongly suggests yes.

They found that having a black principal at a school increased the likelihood that newly-hired teachers would be black by 5 to 7 percentage points, and that changing from a white principal to a black principal increased the percentage of black teachers by 3 percentage points on average. Black teachers stayed in their roles longer in schools led by black principals—reducing black teacher mobility by 2 to 5 percent, they said.

Over time, changing a school’s leader from a white to a black principal increased the proportion of black teachers in a school after five years by 5.3 percentage points in Missouri and 5.2 percentage points in Tennessee, the two states that were the subject of the research on how principals’ race affect the racial makeup of school staff.

The increase in the share of black teachers was accomplished through an increase in the hiring and retention of black teachers. Both black and white principals were more likely to hire teachers who are the same race as they are. That was more evident among teachers who were transferring from one school to another than with novice teachers, the researchers found.

They also found evidence to suggest that having black teachers increased achievement in math for black students. And even in the absence of hiring a black teacher, there were positive math gains for black students under a black principal.

The paper, School Principal Race and the Hiring and Retention of Racially Diverse Teachers, was published this month by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

“It does suggest that hiring more black principals could be one way to get to increased diversity of the workforce in a school,” Grissom said. “Certainly we see that in Missouri and in Tennessee—when black principals come in, the composition changes.”

School districts are grappling with how to diversify the educator workforce as student demographics change. While students of color make up the majority of those enrolled in public schools, the educator workforce looks very different. About 80 percent of teachers are white and only about 20 percent of principals are people of color.

What’s Behind The Numbers?

There’s a ton of things happening here. Both black and white principals are relying on their networks—which tend to be segregated by race—to find candidates for teaching positions. But networks alone don’t quite explain the pattern of same-race hiring for both black and white principals. The pattern continued for principals and teachers for whom the researchers were unable to establish a connection.

And it also wasn’t that black principals were simply taking black teachers from their previous schools with them when they went to lead a new school, they said.

“It seems to be a little bit more nuanced than that,” Bartanen said.

Principals—both black and white—were hiring candidates who tended to have higher qualifications, more experience, and higher ratings on effectiveness measures like observations and evaluations, they said.

Are black teachers choosing to go to schools that are helmed by black principals?

Bartanen said they can’t say for certain based on the data they had access to, but there is some suggestion from the data that there’s teacher-driven behavior at play.

“Higher-quality teachers may be choosing to apply to schools or move to schools where they are going to have a same-race principal,” Bartanen said. “It seems to be that principals are, in part, making the decisions because they are facing a labor market where they are more likely to get applications from higher-quality, same-race teachers.”

That begs the question, should there be concern about racial bias in the selection and hiring process?

A study by Diana D’Amico, a professor at George Mason University, which was published in 2017, argued that racial bias could be one of the reasons for the small percentage of black teachers in the teaching workforce. The study, on the Fairfax County, Va., school district, said there was discrimination in the district’s hiring process, with black teacher-applicants less likely to receive job offers even when they had on average more experience and advanced degrees than white applicants.

But Grissom said he and Bartanen did not have enough data or insight into the application and hiring process—like what made teachers more likely to apply for a job—to answer that question. However, data from Tennessee showing that both black and white principals hired teachers who were better qualified indirectly points to that not being the case, Grissom said.

“At least indirectly, it’s not consistent with the idea that people are hiring purely on the basis of race,” Grissom said. “Instead, what we think is happening is that people are drawing on hiring networks, for example, and they are getting qualified people.”

Relying on their networks, however, shapes the applicant pool and may also affect decisions made thereafter, he said, “but it’s not happening in a way that is producing or that means that they are hiring people who are less effective by the measures that we have in our data.”

As for why black principals appear to have an effect on black students’ math achievement even in the absence of hiring a black teacher, Bartanen said that it could be similar to the ways that principals, regardless of race, impact schools—through indirect means like creating a positive culture and climate in buildings.

But there may be additional ways that black principals had influence on academic results. Changing discipline policies could be one example. Another could be through role-modeling, similar to the way that black teachers influence black student’s behaviors, Bartanen said.

“This role modeling effect seems to be an important reason, for instance, why black students do better with black teachers,” Bartanen said. “I think you can make the same argument for principals, particularly since the principal is the leader of the building; they are seen as someone in a position of authority.”

Targeting Pipelines

So what can districts learn from this?

First, there are some limitations to the study. The educator workforce in both states is less diverse than the rest of the country, so Grissom cautions against generalizing the data.

Still, he said, the research suggests that hiring principals of color could be a strategy to increase the percentage of teachers of color who work in school districts.

Leadership diversity is important by itself, Grissom said, but “we document in the paper that there are achievement differences for black students that are associated with the presence of a black principal.”

“There is this connection between leadership diversity and differential outcomes for kids,” he continued. “There is also this connection between...leadership diversity and teacher diversity. There are multiple ways that leadership diversity appears to be important. I don’t think we have been thinking enough about diversifying the leadership workforce in public schools, and we should be thinking about that. What districts do about that is a really hard question.”

Leadership diversity must be an important part of any discussions that districts are having about staffing and talent development, he said. In some ways, district leaders face fewer hurdles when it comes to leadership diversity because, by and large, they already know where the candidates are going to come from: the teachers of color in their districts.

District leaders must be strategic about spotting and developing that talent, Grissom and Bartanen said. Educator preparation programs can also play a role in helping districts recruit, train, support and retain principals of color by developing closer relationships with districts that want to diversify their leadership workforce and creating partnerships between the two.

“It’s not going to be just one strategy,” Grissom said. “There are multiple actors that are going to have to be involved.”

While district leaders may not be able to change the demographic makeup of their state’s teacher pool in the short term, they can think about how to attract the teachers of color who are already working in the state to their districts, Bartanen said. One way to do that is by hiring principals of color, he said.

“What our analysis suggests is that given that pool of teachers throughout a state...having a diverse principal workforce can actually serve to increase the diversity of the district even without increasing the [teacher] pipeline,” he said. “It’s not just thinking about the pipeline of who goes into teaching, but also we have who we have... As a district leader, what can I do given the pool of teachers in my state? What can I do to get more teachers of color into schools that presumably my students of color can benefit from?”

Of course there is a kind of chicken or egg argument here. The logic is that one way to attract more teachers of color is to hire more principals of color. But because principals are primarily drawn from the teaching ranks, that could create a supply problem since teachers of color are in short supply.

Next Steps for Districts

A next step for districts might be drilling down into how individual principals make hiring decisions because some are clearly more successful than others in finding and retaining qualified teachers of color, Grissom said.

Additional work is needed to understand the hiring process and what it’s like in schools that are led by black principals. Not only were black teachers more likely to stay in those schools, but in Tennessee, they reported higher job satisfaction and had more positive perceptions of their bosses, he said.

“There is something about their job experience that’s different,” Grissom said. “We need to understand a lot more about what is different about those experiences. I think we are just scratching the surface here, and there is a lot more to understand about how black teachers’ experiences are shaped and formed by the presence of a principal of color.”

Image: Getty

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.