School & District Management

Race, Gender, and the Superintendency

By Catherine Gewertz — February 17, 2006 10 min read

The recent resignations of three prominent black female superintendents—Arlene Ackerman of San Francisco, Barbara Byrd-Bennett of Cleveland, and Thandiwe Peebles of Minneapolis—have prompted renewed discussion of the roles race and gender play in the superintendency.

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Current and former such leaders said in interviews that grappling with negative assumptions and having constantly to prove they were capable made the already difficult job of being superintendent that much tougher.

“I’ve always had to make sure that at every moment, I’m at the top of my game,” said Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who departed earlier this month after serving seven years as the chief executive officer of the Cleveland school district. “At every meeting, I feel as if I’m going into the courtroom prosecuting or defending someone, and I’d better have an airtight case.”

A Man’s World

The nation’s 14,000-odd district superintendents are overwhelmingly white and male. The most recent data from the American Association of School Administrators show that in 2000, 15 percent of superintendents were women and 5 percent were members of racial or ethnic minorities of either sex. A forthcoming book on women superintendents reports that they now make up 18 percent of the pool.

The little research that exists about African-American female superintendents pegged their portion of superintendencies at 2 percent or less in the middle and late 1990s, the most recent data available.

Top black female administrators work disproportionately in urban areas. Last month, 13 of the nation’s 66 largest school districts were being run by African-American women. But with the departures of Ms. Byrd-Bennett and Ms. Peebles, and the scheduled June departure of Ms. Ackerman, those urban districts under the leadership of black women will drop from nearly 20 percent to 15 percent.

Educators and scholars disagree about whether being African-American and female influences the way a superintendent is perceived. But anecdotal evidence provided by most of the eight current and former black women superintendents interviewed suggests that it does.

For example, the white man who once approached then-Superintendent Gerry House after a Memphis, Tenn., school budget meeting was smiling, and his tone of voice was joking. But what she heard in his question wasn’t funny.

“You sure you can handle this budget of $500 million?” he asked, as Ms. House recalls it.

An African-American who holds a doctorate in educational administration and has garnered national honors for her leadership of two school districts, Ms. House recounted the incident from the mid-1990s in an interview this month. “You just wonder if they’d go up and make that kind of comment to a white male superintendent,” she said.

“People seem concerned that as a female, or as an African-American, you aren’t able to deal with the tough issues of the superintendency,” said Ms. House, who is now the executive director of the Institute for Student Achievement, based in Lake Success, N.Y. “That perhaps you can do the curriculum and instruction, but when it comes to budget, maintenance, or facility issues, there are subtle comments that get made that would suggest people don’t necessarily have the confidence you can handle it.”

Managerial Skills

Thomas E. Glass, a professor of leadership at the University of Memphis, said he believes lack of training in managerial skills is what most often dooms superintendents’ tenures, regardless of their sex or race.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute, who has written about district leadership, said he doesn’t doubt that those factors can in some cases matter in a superintendent’s work. But he rejects the notion that they do so “in any predictable or straightforward way,” or that they are “a systematic handicap.”

A black superintendent’s race might well provide an advantage a white leader would lack in trying to build connections with a city’s racial and ethnic minorities, Mr. Hess said.

Some black women have found that to be true. Others have found their race can be a double-edged sword.

Rosa A. Smith, the president of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation, said she felt the black community had pinned its hopes on her when she became the superintendent in Columbus, Ohio, in 1997.

“When a black or brown superintendent comes on board, the expectations are extraordinary,” she said. “There’s the expectation that finally, we got someone who understands us, understands our kids. It creates the risk that disappointment can be all the more dramatic.”

Judy A. Alston, the director of the Center for Education at Widener University in Chester, Pa., said such leaders “have the responsibility to ‘represent’ well at all times.”

“You’re always trying to represent your race to white people,” she said, “and represent well for your own people, and think about the legacy you leave, especially if you’re the first. You just don’t have the margin for screw-ups.”

Political Skills?

In a 1999 study of black women superintendents, Ms. Alston found they ranked race and gender lowest on a list of obstacles in their job, even while listing societal attitudes about blacks and the lack of an “old boys’ network” to aid their advancement among the top five difficulties.

Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators, acknowledged that some communities can be “lying in wait” to undermine a new superintendent.

But most often, he said, it’s not race or gender that works against a superintendent, but inexperience, especially mastering “outside the house” challenges such as making political connections.

“If people happen to be not so effective, and happen to be of a different race, one thing gets confused with another,” Mr. Houston said. “There is a tendency of women and minorities to say, ‘I’ve had to struggle to get here, and a lot of people are pulling for my failure,’ and it might change the way you approach the job. You might assume a struggle that may not be there.”

Pat Harvey, who led the St. Paul, Minn., schools from 1999 to 2005, said she wouldn’t say race and gender don’t matter in any superintendency, but she found them largely irrelevant in hers.

She won strong community and business support, she said, by making personal relationships a top priority. In her first four months, she made nearly 40 speeches a month, and chatted with every taxicab driver, parent, and store clerk she could.

“That’s the small ‘p’ in public education,” said Ms. Harvey, who is now a professor of urban education at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a senior fellow with the America’s Choice school reform program. “Families are giving you their children to educate. You have to let them get to know you.”

Some black female superintendents experience their gender as more of a barrier than their race.

Marion E. Bolden, who has been the superintendent in Newark, N.J., for seven years, said she was offered $10,000 less in her initial contract than was advertised for the job. She believes the difference sprang from gender bias, and from doubts about whether a longtime local educator—as opposed to an outsider for the state-run district—was the right choice for the job.

In a predominantly black and Latino community, she said, she does not see racial bias affecting her job. But she is often treated disrespectfully by male community leaders, she said.

“Men call me, and their secretaries want to put me on hold while they get the man on the phone,” she said. “They’re an assistant somewhere, and I’m the superintendent. I finally told my secretary, we will stop that.”

For others, it’s not entirely possible to disentangle the racial and gender dynamics that might be at work. Some women have made conscious decisions not to take the question on. But sometimes, they say, asserting leadership gets them branded in ways they believe men or white people would not be.

“We’ve demonstrated success, but then somehow we’re viewed as autocratic instead of decisive,” said Ms. Ackerman, who has been San Francisco’s superintendent for five years and previously was the District of Columbia schools chief.

Robert S. Peterkin, the director of the urban superintendents’ training program at Harvard University, which seeks to increase the presence of women and minorities in leadership positions, said he believes that “people have a hard time with strong African-American women.”

“It starts in the stereotypes we have about women in leadership, and it gets complicated by the race issue,” he said. “Then it can become an excuse for folks to think they can substitute their wisdom for the leader’s wisdom.”

He also thinks black women superintendents are subjected to “bullying” by their school boards and communities. He cited as an example one such leader who was asked by a reporter whether she agreed with critics who thought of her as a “bitch.”

“There is just no male equivalent for that,” said Mr. Peterkin, a former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee.

Ms. Smith, the former Columbus superintendent, said she believes that much of the flak a superintendent takes stems from forcing people in districts to change their practices. But she does believe that the community’s reaction can be tinged with race and gender stereotyping.

“The fact that I was being as direct as I was, and that I was female and black, made it just that much more distasteful,” she said.

Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who is in her fourth year as the superintendent of the Richmond, Va., schools, said being black and female affects her job, sometimes in contradictory ways.

Early in her tenure, she said, a black school board member told her that some community members were worried she’d be viewed as “too pro-black” and not concerned enough with the district’s white students. On another occasion, she recalled, a white board member said it was obvious she favored white people because she had hugged some white teachers in the audience after a meeting.

Caught in a Bind

Ms. Byrd-Bennett, the former Cleveland schools chief, said some blacks in her community saw her as “uppity” because of her straight hair, love of large jewelry, and Northeastern way of speaking. She was criticized as being “soft” on black children when she sought to revise a disciplinary code that suspended students for such infractions as repeatedly failing to bring a pencil to class.

“I have to try to stay on message and purpose very consciously to try to avoid some of this,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said. “You’re always pushing that agenda, proving that agenda, fighting things you shouldn’t have to fight.”

Other black women superintendents told stories of drawing negative reactions based on their clothing, a burden they don’t believe men carry. Some white community members in Minneapolis reportedly grumbled that Ms. Peebles, who wore her hair in dreadlocks and favored flowing dresses in African-patterned fabric, had too “rough” or “Afrocentric” a look. (“In Minneapolis, School Chief’s Tenure Debated,” Feb. 8, 2006.)

Carol S. Parham, who led the Anne Arundel County, Md., schools for eight years, said the racial and gender dynamics in the superintendency are so clear to her that she gets frustrated when some people argue that they have no effect.

“It’s somewhat transparent to the casual observer,” she said. “They say it’s about competency. The fact is, for an African-American woman serving as a superintendent, it’s an issue that’s with her 24 hours a day.

“She must double-think every situation and every word she says. Are you going to be viewed as, ‘Oh, you’re only doing this because it involves black folks?’ or, ‘Are you exhibiting the right amount of strength on this issue, because if not, it’s because you’re a woman.’ ”

Ms. House, the former Memphis superintendent, said that bias based on race and sex might not be as blatant as it was decades ago, but that doesn’t mean such attitudes don’t still exert a powerful influence on how a job unfolds.

“What I experienced was subtle, but the subtleties are not imagined,” she said. “Race and gender are always the elephants in the room. To dismiss them as real issues is to put our heads in the sand.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as Race, Gender, and the Superintendency


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