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For Black Candidates and Women, It Takes Longer to Be Promoted to Principal

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Assistant principals are an understudied leadership role in K-12 schools, particularly in how they end up shaping the administrative labor force: Who gets to move up from the role to become a prinicipal, the first rung on the administrative ladder? And what type of schools do they end up working in? 

A new study finds that longstanding racial and gender inequities play out systematically in this pipeline, affecting which APs get the chance to run their own schools.

Black assistant principals had to wait longer—more than half a year—than their white peers to become principals, and were 18 percent less likely to earn the promotion than equally qualified white candidates. And at the high school level, it took women of all races more than two-thirds of a year longer to be promoted to the principalship, and they were about 5 percent to 7 percent less likely to be promoted than men.

The study, by Lauren P. Bailes, an assistant professor of education leadership at the University of Delaware and Sarah Guthery, an assistant professor at Texas A & M University—Commerce, takes a look at the pipeline at a time when diversifying the ranks of the profession has become a top priority for many. The study was published in AERA Open.

The findings are generally consistent with other research on the pathway to the principalship indicating that white men are more likely than educators of color to make the leap to the big office—and that men of any race are more likely than women of any race to become principals.

But the study adds to that burgeoning literature by zoning in on how long it takes to reach the milestone, and also investigating the specific place of being an AP in the process.

Though the findings are dispiriting, it's not all bad news: Data on who is being selected for these roles should be available in every district office, which means that superintendents and school boards can start dealing with this now, by being more thoughtful and purposeful in tapping promising women and black leaders for the principalship. 

"We are optimistic that this is a really actionable paper," said Bailes in an interview. "These data are everywhere. They are pretty typical administrative sets. And this is a really telling way of seeing where your talent is, and where it's getting squeezed out. There are some relatively straightforward ways to understanding and ameliorating inequities in your hiring." 

Examining the Data

The researchers analyzed a sample of nearly 4,700 assistant principals in Texas arranged in four different cohorts. Each had earned a master's degree and held a principal's certificate. Then they tracked their employment histories through 2017, controlling for factors like education, school type, and whether they worked in a rural or urban context.

Overall, both black candidates and women were less likely to be selected and faced longer wait-times to receive their promotions (if they got them at all). Digging below those findings yielded some other intriguing insights. 

  • On average, the men in the sample had less experience—as much as 20 months less—than women, despite being more likely to be selected for the principalship. 
  • The study didn't find evidence that black women were doubly disadvantaged in terms of being promoted.
  • There weren't any significant differences for APs who identified as Hispanic compared to their peers. But because the sample is from Texas, where there is a large Hispanic population, and a need for bilingual administrators, it's possible these patterns could look different in other states. 

As always with this type of study, it's better at answering the "what" question than the "why" question. Why do these patterns keep showing up? There are any number of good theories, including some from literature on promotions in the workplace that women and people of color are less likely to put themselves forward forcefully for promotions. ("There is an advantage to making yourself visible and making your aspirtations clear, early, and often," Bailes said.) 

But there are also longstanding tropes that affect selection for jobs that are probably reflected here, i.e., that women should work in the lower grades where students need more nurturing and that former coaches and men make the best "stickler" high school principals.

And finally, there are the realities of plain old sexism and racism exerting themselves on the leadership pipeline.

Why the Findings Matter

There are obvious implications for the diversity of the K-12 field as a whole from these findings. Other research suggests that hiring black principals also helps boost the number of black teachers, probably because black school leaders tap their own diverse professional networks looking for teaching talent. And the effects start to trickle down: there's evidence of learning boosts among black students who are taught by black teachers, and higher rates of college enrollment for those students, too. Failure to address the leadership elements, though, means those potential benefits are lost.

(A number of scholars and educators have also written about the leadership and role-model effects for youths of having a black principal, so clearly there are nonacademic benefits too.)

For women, there's an obvious glass-ceiling issue in the knowledge in such a heavily female-dominated industry as K-12 education that it's harder for them to move to a principalship at the high school level. 

So who's responsible for helping to fix these patterns? The researchers put the responsibility pretty squarely on the shoulders of superintendents, who have the largest control over who ends up leading the schools in their districts.

"Superintendents are best positioned to enact practical responses to these findings in their districts," the researchers write. "Those who wish to rectify race and gender equity gaps in their districts first need to examine the rates of promotion and the average time to promotion for women and assistant principals of color in their own districts. Additionally, placing more value on elementary principalships as preparatory experiences for district leadership may result in increased equality at higher ranks."

The findings resonate with the nation's current conversation over structural racism and how it's replicated in public institutions, including schools. But the researchers noted that there's room for optimism, too: Lots of qualified would-be-principals are waiting in the wings.

"If offers a lot of hope to realize there are people in the pipeline who are qualified and are interested in leading schools, and they can choose to really invest in those people," said Guthery.  "And it might be a lot shorter timeline than you would think to close some of these gaps." 


Read more about principals in our special reports on the profession. And sign up for our new Savvy Principal newsletter

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