Education Administration

Why Black School Principals Matter

Why Black School Principals Matter
As the student population grows more diverse each school year, diversity in leadership lags, causing a ripple effect on student achievement, attendance, teacher satisfaction, and overall interaction within the school and the community. Image from Pexels
Courtney Eiland profile
Courtney Eiland June 20, 2022

Minorities constitute over half of public school student populations, yet Black principals lead only 10 percent of their schools. Data show that Black students excel under Black leadership. It's time to increase the number of minority administrators.

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There’s a dramatic disparity between the proportion of minority students in public school systems and the proportion of minority principals leading those schools. While minorities make up more than half of the K-12 student body population, nearly 80 percent of principals are white. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) notes that of the 90,000+ K-12 principals, 11 percent are Black, nine percent are Hispanic/Latinx, and less than one percent are Asian, Pacific Islander, or identify with two or more races.

Does it matter? Studies show that this representation gap in school leadership affects teacher retention and student performance, two critical areas. Clearly, schools must do a better job of reflecting their student body demographics in educational leadership.

Although the NCES study notes a slight increase in Hispanic/Latinx principals (five percent to nine percent) from the 1999-2000 and 2017-2018 school years, the growth in Black principals remained stagnant at 11 percent. EdWeek notes that employment of Black educators is still recovering from 1954’s _Brown v. Board of Education__ decision, which had the unintended consequence of eliminating Black leadership roles by eliminating segregated all-black schools. “We decimated the black principal and teacher pipeline, and we’ve never rectified that,” notes Leslie Fenwick, Howard University School of Education dean emeritus.

As the student population grows more diverse each school year, diversity in leadership lags, causing a ripple effect on student achievement, attendance, teacher satisfaction, and overall interaction within the school and the community. So, why do Black school principals matter? This article addresses that question by discussing the influence principals have on:

  • Increased hiring of minority teachers
  • Improved student performance
  • Increased enrollment of Black students in gifted programs
  • Reduced disciplinary disparity

We’ll also discuss the importance of representation and how to increase the number of Black school principals by growing the pipeline to build leaders of color.

Why Black school principals matter

Black school principals can make a difference in the outcome of student success, especially when working with minority-based student populations. That’s due in part to the hiring decisions they make—they are more likely than their white counterparts to hire minority teachers whom, studies indicate, produce better results for these students. Black principals are also more effective in promoting minority teacher satisfaction and retention, stabilizing factors that also tend to improve student performance.

So why is there such a discrepancy in the percentage of Black principals within public and even charter schools? The outcomes discussed below show why it’s critical and beneficial to add more diversity to school leadership positions around the nation, from elementary school to high school.

Increased hiring of minority teachers

Educational research shows that teacher diversityresults from leadership diversity. This correlation impacts education systems in the following ways:

  • Principals of color are more likely to influence the hiring decisions that increase the number of teachers of color
  • Teacher retention rates are higher when the principal and educator share the same racial identity
  • Principals of color help build the educational leadership pipeline by promoting from within and investing in professional development to shape a more diverse school administration

Of course, qualifications and personal characteristics must impact hiring decisions; no one should be hired solely based on their race. That said, minority principals and teachers positively impact student performance, so why not seek ways to increase their number?

According to School Principal Race and the Hiring and Retention of Racially Diverse Teachers (EdWorkingPaper No. 19-59), Black principals increase the probability of hiring a Black educator by five to seven percent. In addition, Black principals reduce the likelihood that a Black teacher changes schools by two to five percent. As a result, an increase in Black teacher hiring and a decreased turnover mean that a Black principal increases the fraction of Black teachers working in a school by about three percent, increasing students’ exposure to Black teachers. Hiring Black principals is an effective way to further diversify school faculties.

Improved student performance

Research conducted by The Wallace Foundation indicates that principals of color more consistently correlate with positive outcomes for students of color or from the same racial or ethnic group. The report also shows that Black students have higher test scores in math, on average, when the principal is Black.

The visibility of leaders of color influences students outside of their academic performance in the classroom. It also correlates with increased attendance rates, a higher motivation to succeed, and an overall sense of pride and belonging. Although most research shows the impact from a public school perspective, Black leaders in charter schools also see higher success rates among minority students when they share the same racial background.

Black school leaders identify with the work involved in creating a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and anti-racist school culture. In addition, they may view cultural differences as valuable assets rather than roadblocks in developing this culture from the leadership level.

Increased enrollment of Black students in gifted programs

When leaders of color are at the helm of educational systems, they tend to encourage and set high expectations for minority students to excel academically. Also, when minority students see school leaders or educators they identify with, they tend to look to them as role models, which drives their self-belief that they too are capable of success. One result demonstrates this principle clearly: schools led by Black principals produce increased enrollment of Black students in gifted programs.

Unfortunately, the ratio between Black and white students enrolled in gifted programs is still highly disproportional. This is due to such factors as:

  • Lack of access to programs in high-poverty schools compared to wealthy schools
  • Lack of encouragement from educational leadership to recognize potential
  • Roadblocks regarding testing and additional program requirements

In their proactive efforts to redress these inequities, Black principals are more likely to encourage Black students to enroll in gifted programs (internal or external) or other preparation programs to help set them up for long-term success.

Reduced disciplinary disparity

A U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights study on exclusionary discipline practices during the 2017-18 school year revealed: “Black students, who accounted for 15.1% of total student enrollment, were expelled at rates that were more than twice their share of total student enrollment—38.8% of expulsions with educational services and 33.3% of expulsions without educational services.”

Diverse leadership is more often aware of cultural and behavioral styles that may not conform with “mainstream” expectations. Understanding these differences may help steer away from harsh disciplinary actions against minority students, such as detention, suspension, or expulsion. Disciplinary disparities, also known as the “racial discipline gap,” reinforces inequities when decisions stem from stereotypes or other unconscious biases— decisions that result in lower grades for those affected.

Schools led by Black principals or members of diverse backgrounds tend to have a more nuanced understanding that behavioral situations can be handled in a more equity-driven way. Furthermore, students in classrooms led by a same-race teacher are less likely to face harsh or exclusionary discipline.

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The importance of representation

Representation matters. It especially matters in schools, where students spend most of their day developing their minds and shaping their future. In this development and exploration stage, it is essential to have authority figures who reflect themselves, helping them progress and showing them that success is possible. These figures can be principals, educators, guidance counselors, and coaches.

However, developing this equity-focused and inclusive culture takes building leaders who will commit to the work involved. By closing the representation gap in leadership, the achievement gap and racial discipline gap will naturally follow suit. Success in those categories can help reduce pre-existing barriers and result in an equitable education and future for all students.

Increased opportunities to develop leaders from within

School systems led by Black superintendents, district leaders, or principals play a valuable role in the recruitment methods to build a diverse workforce. While 11 percent of principals are Black, only two percent are Black males. There needs to be an entry point into the schools to build this pipeline so Black administrators can gain essential skills to move into leadership positions and continue the cycle. This initiative takes three key steps:

  • Acknowledge the need
  • Recruit diverse educators
  • Develop future leaders

Getting educators in the classroom doors is one thing, but the work doesn’t stop there. Teachers who aspire to grow in their careers should be lifelong learners who commit to excel through professional development and mentoring opportunities.

How to Increase the number of black school principals

There is a critical need for Black principals to impact multiple layers of a school system. From teacher recruitment and retention to student achievement and a sense of belonging, Black principals drive equity in education.

To help build future leaders of color, New Leaders recently joined forces with preeminent HBCUs Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University to develop the National Aspiring Principals Fellowship. This first-of-its-kind program offers a one-year Principal Certification or a 16-month Master + Certification track.

The Fellowship aims to identify and train the next generation of school leaders and strong minority candidates who better reflect the students they serve. This blended learning experience provides on-the-job training through coursework, expert coaching, and networking opportunities with fellow cohorts. Admission requirements include:

  • A valid teaching license
  • Two to three years of teaching experience
  • A school-based leadership role
  • A master’s degree (only required for the one-year Principal Certification track)

    As the student population becomes more diverse, research proves that minority students have better outcomes when leadership reflects the student body. However, the representation gap in leadership can only close if a robust pipeline exists to cultivate future equity-focused leaders who can fill those voids to create more inclusive environments and promote minority student achievement.

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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