School & District Management

Race and the Principal Pipeline

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — November 12, 2012 3 min read
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The teaching diversity gap—there are proportionately fewer minority teachers than minority students nationwide—has been the target of programs aimed at bringing more minorities into teaching. But there’s been less attention to the way race affects potential school leaders’ pathways to principalship. Given that most principals have taught at some point, you might expect that the principal force would be just as disproportionately white as the teaching force. But it turns out that’s not the case.

Still-unpublished research from Stanford University’s Imeh Williams and Susanna Loeb explores race in relationship to the career trajectories of teachers, especially black teachers. Using data from the National Center for Educational Statistics and the Wisconsin state department of education, the authors examine the racial demographics of the principal force; to what extent race, rather than teacher characteristics or the schools where they teach, predicts which teachers become principals; where those differences emerge; and how much the career preferences of teachers explain which become school leaders.

It turns out that there are proportionately more black principals than there are black teachers, especially in urban centers. Nationally, 11 percent of principals are black, as compared to 7 percent of teachers; 21 percent of urban principals are black. And the Wisconsin data suggests that the trend of more minority teachers becoming administrators starts before the principalship: Black teachers were 6-8 times more likely to become assistant principals than their white peers. Latino teachers were also more likely to become assistant principals.

Minority principals are still underrepresented compared to the student bodies they serve (more than 40 percent of the nation’s students are non-white, according to federal data), but the difference is less extreme than the difference between teachers’ and students’ racial representation. (In some urban districts, the number of black teachers has declined dramatically and been the subject of some contention.)

To understand some of this difference, the researchers also surveyed teachers in the state of Wisconsin to gauge their interest in becoming principals, whether they’d been encouraged to pursue school leadership, and whether they’d obtained the administrative credential that would make them eligible to do so. Higher percentages of black and Latino teachers expressed an interest in becoming a principal than their white peers, and more had taken action: Twenty-nine percent of black teachers in Milwaukee had an administrative credential required to become a principal, compared with 11 percent of white teachers. Black teachers also reported being more likely to be “tapped” to become principals by central office or school staff.

The authors also put the significance of educational leadership positions, especially for black school leaders, in historical and sociological context. For instance, they cite research that suggests that black principals are likely to be perceived as prominent leaders in black communities.

This research does not try to address whether having black principals is better for schools. The authors write that it could go either way: It could provide more positive role models for minority students. Or it could mean that there are more principals who share a cultural experience with the communities in which they work. Or, given research that suggests that white teachers, like minority teachers, are more likely to stick around and be promoted in schools where they share a race with the principal, it could lead to racial tensions or lower overall teacher retention in schools where there are more white teachers.

These racial tensions are still sometimes more than hypothetical, sadly: In Portland, Ore., some members of one school’s staff are struggling with an insistent focus on race from its principal. And a group of teachers in Philadelphia in a school whose staff has struggled with racial tensions under white AND black principals filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination last year.

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