School & District Management

Many White Principals Feel Ill-Equipped to Support Students of Color, Poor Children

By Denisa R. Superville — July 31, 2019 4 min read
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Nearly 40 percent of white principals say their school leadership preparation programs did not fully equip them to support the needs of black, Latino, and low-income students.

That finding—from an analysis released this month by RAND Education and Labor—comes from a survey of principals. Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s K-12 principals are white, while more than half of students enrolled in public schools are black, Latino, Asian, American Indian, or mixed race.

The survey found that white principals were more likely than non-white principals to say that their preservice programs did not prepare them to meet the needs of diverse student bodies, with 39 percent of white principals saying that their programs left them “completely unprepared” or “mostly unprepared,” to support black, Latino, and low-income students.

While non-white principals were more likely to say their programs left them prepared to address the needs of diverse student bodies, a significant percentage—21 percent—said they felt “mostly unprepared” to meet the needs of those students.

The poll also found a similar disparity among teachers who were surveyed. White teachers were less likely than non-white teachers to say their pre-service programs prepared them to support black, Latino, and low-income students.

In a separate finding, 45 percent of all principals said their programs did not adequately equip them for supporting the needs of “students with high-incidence disabilities” when they first started the job. High-incidence disabilities can include speech and language impairments like stuttering, learning disabilities such as dyslexia and developmental aphasia, and mild intellectual disabilities.

The RAND poll of principals and teachers asked about their perceptions of their preparation programs across many areas. Those included whether they felt well-trained to use data for school improvement, whether the programs provided effective mentors, and left them feeling ready to run a school.

Principals were also asked about whether the programs prepared them to deal with some concrete aspects of running schools when they first started the job, including working with families, creating a “student-centered learning climate,” “fostering safety, trust, and agency” among students, and social and emotional learning. It asked about the availability and length of their field experience—such as internships and other opportunities to practice what they were learning in their programs.

By and large, principals and teachers said that their programs gave them the tools they needed to do their jobs, and that the experiences and courses they took during their preservice programs were relevant in the real world.

Principals who had more field experience were likely to have good things to say about their preparation programs, according to the report. And the more time principals spent on the job, the less favorable they viewed their pre-service programs.

RAND notes four big limitations in the brief, including that researchers were relying on educators’ perception and memory of their preparation programs and not actual analyses of the strengths, weaknesses, or quality of said programs.

The report comes amid debate about whether leadership preparation programs are adequately preparing principals for the host of challenges they now face at the school building level—from rising mental health concerns in students, more complex site-based budgeting, and heightened concern over school safety, to name a few.

Just two years ago, Education Week took a look at principal-preparation programs amid research showing that, in many cases, university-based prep programs lacked enough meaningful on-the-job experiences, had a mismatch between course work and principal’s day-to-day responsibilities, and employed instructors that had been out of the classroom or K-12 for years.

Educator workforce does not reflect student diversity

The students enrolled in the nation’s public schools have become more diverse, while the educators leading schools and teaching in classrooms have remained predominantly white. In the 2016-17 school year, a majority—about 52 percent—of public school students were non-white. In the 2015-16 school year, about 80 percent of teachers were white.

Nearly 78 percent of principals were white in the 2015-16 school year, according to NCES.

Research has shown that having just one same-race teacher can make a big difference for black students. A 2018 Johns Hopkins paper found that having just one black teacher by the 3rd grade increased a black student’s chances of going to college by 13 percent. Those chances jumped to 32 percent if the student had had two black teachers by the 3rd grade, according to the study.

In addition to the demographic change, more students are also poorer. In the 2015-16 school year, 52 percent of students were eligible for federal free and reduced-price meals, which is often used as a measure of poverty in many school districts.

Confronted with such needs, school officials in many districts&from Newark, N.J., to Jennings, Mo.,—are now operating food pantries, clothing closets, and laundry facilities to help their students and families meet basic needs.

In the brief, the RAND researchers said that the findings from the poll could help inform decisions about changes to educator preparation programs. They also argued that preparation programs should have a strong mentorship component and should link field experiences with coursework.

“In particular,” they wrote, “preparation programs may benefit from a stronger focus on supporting the needs of a diverse student body, in terms of race and ethnicity, social class, and students with high-needs disabilities.”

You can read the entire brief here.

Photo: Getty

Chart: Principal and Teacher Preparation to Support the Needs of Diverse Students, RAND Corporation, 2019

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