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School & District Management Opinion

Why Is Education Leadership So White?

By Michael Magee — March 07, 2016 4 min read
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At this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, the lack of diversity in Hollywood took center stage. And that lack of diversity is striking: For the second year in a row, all 20 Oscar nominees for acting were white. There was a public outcry, but it’s not the first time in recent history Hollywood stars and movie fans have expressed outrage about the inherent white bias for Oscar nominees. The backlash included the resurgence of the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign, as well as a new plan by the Academy to diversify its membership. Chris Rock hosted the awards and gave a monologue that got to the crux of the matter: a request, in front of millions of people, for black actors to receive the same opportunities as their white peers.

But as troubling as Hollywood’s problem is, there is another, much more consequential profession with an even more striking lack of diversity: that of education leaders—in particular, state education commissioners and school district superintendents.

In districts across the nation, half of all students are students of color. But only around 6 percent of school superintendents are nonwhite, and roughly 25 percent are women. These figures play out at the state level as well, where 88 percent of state education commissioners and state superintendents of education are white and 58 percent are male, according to a survey conducted by Chiefs for Change, the nonprofit organization that I direct.

America’s schools are increasingly, staggeringly segregated. The lack of high-ranking leaders of color is troubling. But there are exceptions. When I say the words “math teacher” to my daughter, the image that pops into her head is of a black man in his 20s. He is funny and nice, she will tell you. He is a good teacher who knows a lot about algebra. She is 12 years old and white and still learning about the world. This little experiment works the other way, too. When I say “black man,” she thinks “math teacher.” He does not feel to her like an exception. Neither do many of her classmates, who are black and brown and also good at math. But her school is hardly the norm when it comes to a healthy view of classroom diversity.

Why is this so troubling? Because beyond the discrepancies in funding that schools face, we all need role models who share some of our experiences and serve as a beacon to show us how far we can go in the world, especially as students. Studies show that students taught by teachers who share their race or ethnicity benefit academically in math, as well as reading.

Just as important, the aspirations of children and, by extension, the aspirations of their communities, rely on convincing students that all of their goals are possible. The impact of school leaders who reflect their own students cannot be overestimated.

Diversifying education leadership—and retaining those leaders—will not happen on the wings of our good intentions."

There is also a troubling Catch-22. One of the problems contributing to the lack of diversity among school leaders and teachers is the very one that an increase of diversity would help solve. Students of color graduate from high school at a much lower rate than their white classmates, shrinking the pool of potential teachers, school leaders, and system leaders of color.

But that Catch-22 isn’t cause for surrender. It just means states and districts have to work harder to nurture and encourage students of color to pursue a career in education. We have to become more creative with our efforts to hire and retain diverse leaders. Current leaders must identify and mentor potential superintendents and commissioners. States and the federal government should replicate and pay for programs that develop local school leaders, particularly programs that help create career paths for educators of color and provide financial support for potential leaders seeking advanced degrees. And districts should provide continued support once those leaders are actually hired.

What image pops into a school board member’s head when he or she hears the term “superintendent of schools,” or a governor’s head when he or she hears the term “commissioner of education”? Unlike my daughter’s reaction to “math teacher,” for most, I’m afraid, the range of possibilities is as narrow as it is for the average member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who imagines “Oscar winner.” Institutions and their leaders will reinforce the status quo until someone disrupts it.

When I ask current state and district education chiefs how they became leaders, I hear one common thread. All of them, somewhere along the way, had a person of influence and authority say to them, “You should be a district superintendent,” or “You should be a state chief.” And then, just as important, “Let’s create a leadership plan for you.” That same kind of mentorship must be available to educators of color.

Diversifying education leadership—and retaining those leaders—will not happen on the wings of our good intentions. We need to take a closer look at districts where people of color hold and keep leadership positions. And then we have to make a plan to model those districts. It will take a diverse body of educators, both those who lead America’s public schools today and those who want to lead them tomorrow. Hollywood is waking up to its diversity crisis. It’s time to disrupt the status quo in education as well.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as The Diversity Crisis for Education’s Leading Roles

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