Study: Inequitable pathways to education leadership

Black or female assistant principals are systematically delayed or denied promotion to principal roles compared to equally qualified White or male counterparts—but districts leaders can take steps to address the situation.
By: | June 15, 2020
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An analysis of 4,689 Texas assistant principals and their progress to promotion from 2001 to 2017 reveals that inequities begin early in the education leadership pipeline.

Despite having equivalent qualifications and more experience, on average, assistant principals who are Black or female take longer to reach the principalship or don’t reach it at all. Prior research had identified gaps in promotions at the top levels of school and district leadership, and this study delves further by focusing on time to and probability of promotions once an individual has taken that first administrative step.

After holding education, experience, school levels and school location constant, Black assistant principals were 18% less likely to be promoted than White candidates. Black candidate promotions took an average of 5.27 years, versus 4.67 years for their White peers.

Analysis of high school principals revealed a difference in promotion by gender. The women studied were 5% to 7% less likely to be promoted to principalships in these schools than men. And the longer woman remained as assistant principals, the less likely they were to ever win a promotion. Women who did become high school principals had a longer wait than men—5.62 years versus 4.94 years.

All of that is in spite of an overwhelmingly female teacher workforce that is becoming more racially diverse. “We find that diversity exists in the pipeline, but the pipeline tends to squeeze out women and Blacks much earlier than studies of school leadership usually capture,” says Guthery.

Published in the June edition of the American Educational Research Association’s journal AERA Open, the findings are from a study by Lauren Bailes at the University of Delaware and Sarah Guthery at Texas A&M University–Commerce.


Video: Study coauthors discuss findings and implications


Women and Black assistant principals at the high school level also had more teaching experience before progressing into those roles compared to men.

“At every point of promotion, the pool of candidates is whiter and more male, especially compared to the teacher workforce,” said Guthery.

And in terms of having an eye on the superintendent role, a high school principalship is the typical path. “Women who lead elementary schools are less likely to be tapped for superintendencies and other district leadership positions,” notes Bailes.

The authors express concern that the non-promotion of Black principal candidates impacts Black teachers and students throughout school districts. “Because principals and district leaders are more likely to identify educators of their own race for promotion, the underrepresentation of minority groups is likely to ripple throughout schools and districts,” says Bailes. “Prior research also shows that hiring more Black principals can help close the achievement gaps between White and non-White students nationally.”

Steps to addressing inequities

State and district policymakers can take action on rectifying race and gender equity gaps by establishing metrics of success within school districts that rate equity in promotion for equivalently qualified individuals who aspire to leadership positions.

Examining the rates of promotion and average time to promotion for assistant principals by gender and race is a step that superintendents can take. The study authors also suggest placing more value on elementary principalships as preparatory experiences for district leadership.

When inequities are identified, establishing a mentorship program may help. Women and people of color in assistant principal roles can be matched with principals who have a track record of training and promoting a diverse group of assistant principals.

Districts and states can also consider dropping mandatory licensure tests, which have been shown to reduce access to the leadership pipeline for non-White educators. An initial step could be to audit licensure exams and cutoff scores to evaluate whether the test is eliminating a disproportionate number of Black candidates.

The study report also suggests the need for more research on the pathways by which women and people of color enter the teaching profession, the structures that facilitate their longevity in the profession and the rates at which they get promoted into administrative positions.

“School improvement is an urgent mandate,” the study notes, “and increasing the diversity of school leadership is likely to result in addressing the academic needs of an increasingly diverse student body.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.