School leadership: An untapped opportunity to draw young people of color into teaching

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard speaks with Disney II Elementary School principal Bogdana Chkoumbova in Chicago, September 26, 2011. Disney is one of 13 Chicago public schools which have decided to be early adopters of a plan to add 90 minutes to the school day, a scheme pushed hard by new Mayor Rahm Emanuel who says it is necessary to improve the city's K-12 education. Picture taken September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Young  (UNITED STATES - Tags: EDUCATION POLITICS SOCIETY BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - GM1E79T06IA01
Editor's note:

This post is part of “Teacher diversity in America,” a series from the Brown Center on Education Policy that examines minority underrepresentation among public educators in the U.S.

School leaders serve many critical roles in their schools. They split their time between supporting their teacher workforce, communicating with parents, working with the district office, and managing all of the operational processes to keep the school open day to day. A demanding job, school leaders often work nearly 60-hour weeks, filled with challenges ranging from layers of bureaucratic and policy requirements to regular criticism from parents or employees.

Given the importance and visibility of school leaders, it is important to consider the racial and ethnic diversity of this group of educators. Administrators of color bring a number of unique strengths: More frequent exposure to people of color in authoritative positions can replace stereotyping and unconscious biases with acceptance and trust; leaders of color have a distinct advantage when interacting with community members that share their racial or ethnic background; and finally, leaders of color can contribute nuance and perspective for academic programs targeting students of color. As public schools increasingly serve more students of color, states and districts should also make a diverse corpus of principals a priority.

In this installment of our ongoing teacher diversity series, we examine diversity among school leaders. Because leading a classroom is nearly a universal prerequisite to leading a school, we were unsurprised to see large diversity gaps between principals of color and the students they serve, roughly mirroring what we observe among teachers.

We were surprised, however, to learn that opportunities for leadership in schools are significantly stronger for black and Hispanic groups in comparison to leadership opportunities in other industries. In other words, our results imply that opportunities for leadership could be a strength of the teaching profession. These opportunities just might help attract young people of color into it the teaching profession, if we can get the word out.

Diversity among school leadership

Throughout this post, we paint a picture of the pool of public school leaders using data from the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS).[1] The “education administrator” occupation code we use includes public school principals and assistant principals. The following table presents a few summary statistics of the demographic composition of those in this occupation, as well as comparison data against public school teachers and students.

Table 1: Demographic breakdown of administrators, teachers, and students

Race/ethnicity Administrators Teachers Students
White 75.1% 80.1% 50.3%
Black 12.9% 7.7% 14.4%
Hispanic 8.6% 8.3% 25.2%
Other races 3.4% 3.9% 10.0%
Source: Authors’ calculations based on the American Community Survey, 2016; 5-year estimates.

We see a significant degree of racial mismatch between school administrators and the students in their care—just half of students are white, but three-fourths of administrators are. The overrepresentation of whites among administrators roughly mirrors the overrepresentation among teachers (80 percent), a near-universal antecedent to school leadership.

In fact, overrepresentation of white teachers and administrators likely dates back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the decade after the case, due to black schools closing and discrimination against black administrators, an estimated 90 percent of black principals in the South lost their jobs. The simultaneous loss of 38,000 black teachers during that same era meant the loss of a potential next generation of leadership. Encouragingly, though, the representation of black school leaders has rebounded somewhat (12.9 percent), and is now closer to student (14.4 percent) representation than that seen among teachers (7.7 percent); though this is not true of other racial subgroups.

One way to cut this data is to look at the ratio of school leaders to teachers for each demographic group. For reasons that will be clear in just a moment, we create these ratios of leaders to teachers by race and gender. Figure 1 below plots these ratios across racial and ethnic subgroups in the data. Higher values here suggest greater opportunities for advancement into leadership within schools from the teacher ranks. For example, at the high end there are two black male leaders for every nine black male teachers in the survey, resulting in a leader:teacher ratio of 0.22. Incidentally, white women have the lowest ratio, with one administrator for about every 16 teachers.

Taking a step back to look at general patterns in this figure, two points are noteworthy. First, men have higher leader:teacher ratios than women across all racial and ethnic categories. Though it is discouraging to see men advancing more readily into administration than women, particularly in a female-dominated profession as teaching is, it is consistent with prior research evidence on the topic.

Second, and more surprising to us, is that both black men and women show the highest leader:teacher ratios in their respective gender categories. Both black men and women are more strongly represented among the ranks of school leadership than among the teacher workforce, suggesting particularly strong prospects of upward career advancement for teachers in these subgroups. The other three racial and ethnic groups have roughly equivalent ratios (within gender).

Leadership in schools versus other industries

The leader:teacher ratio above is a proxy for upward advancement within the industry; however, it is possible that other industries offer different, perhaps even better options for advancement into management for some groups that public education does not. The ACS data we use for this analysis also allows us to examine how the demographics of managers in other industries compare against leaders in public schools.

For the following analysis, we examine the demographics of those working in management roles in health care, social services, and postsecondary education. We choose these three industries as they are complementary public-service-oriented fields that, like K-12 schools, typically require a bachelor’s degree and occupational license to enter these fields (and typically a higher degree to move into leadership). Though school leadership certainly takes a unique set of skills, we expect many of these skills to be shared with managers in these complementary industries, and therefore could be viewed as a reasonable approximation of leadership opportunities outside of public schools for those considering a career in public education.

Figure 2 presents a ratio of school leaders to managers in these other fields by race and gender subgroups. Overall, we observe three school leaders in the data for every seven managers in other occupations, or a school leader:manager ratio of 0.3—the fact that this value is less than one is reasonable, as we are pooling leaders in one sector against those in multiple industries.

This 0.3 ratio could be considered a baseline for comparison—higher values among specific subgroups suggest more likely advancement into management in public schools, whereas lower values suggest greater opportunities exist outside of public schools. Specifically, white women as well as men and women of the catch-all “Other” category (predominantly Asians) show values below this 0.3 reference point, suggesting their opportunities to lead are likely higher in these other industries.

On the other hand, both men and women in the black and Hispanic categories (and white men) score well above this 0.3 comparison line. These ratios suggest black and Hispanic individuals who are weighing a career in public schools against these complementary sectors have better upward mobility prospects in public education.

Promote school leadership to attract more young people of color into schools

Summing up our findings, we see ratios of school leaders to teachers that put black teachers at a distinct advantage in moving into school leadership. And when comparing against other industries, both black and Hispanic individuals are more strongly represented among leadership in K-12 public schools compared to management in other complementary industries. Yes, people of color continue to be disproportionately underrepresented in school leadership, though this appears to be more a function of the pipeline into teaching, not into leadership.

We interpret these data as pointing to strong career opportunities for black and Hispanic individuals in public education. Yet, to our knowledge, opportunities for career advancement are not part of the recruitment strategies to attract more nonwhite teachers to the profession. We believe they should be, as it could be a powerful strategy for increasing diversity in two distinct ways.

First, when teaching is advertised as the first step in a career in schools with opportunities for moving up (rather than a flat career trajectory typically assumed), many young people of color may be more attracted to the profession. Second, when incoming teachers are diverse and subsequently ascend into leadership, their influence is multiplied: School leaders of color have their own unique influence on hiring and staffing decisions, often resulting in greater attraction and retention among teachers of color. Leaders of color have been shown to even tap teachers of color to nudge them toward school leadership.

In other words, diverse teachers are the direct inputs into a diverse pool of school leaders. Once they lead, they promote diverse teachers. Rinse and repeat.

Bethany Kirkpatrick and Kimberly Truong contributed to this post.


  1. We isolate survey respondents who report working full time as an education administrator. The ACS is designed to be a representative sample of U.S. households, not necessarily the pool of public school administrators. We compared the demographics of school administrators in the ACS to those reported in the 2015-16 National Teacher and Principal Survey—a survey designed to be representative of school principals—and found nearly perfect alignment on race, age, and gender. (Back to top)