October 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 2
Developing School Leaders
Issue Table of Contents | Read Article Abstract
Increasing the Ranks of Minority Principals
Jafeth E. Sanchez, Bill Thornton and Janet Usinger
The U.S. public school population has become ethnically diverse, but the principalship has not. Here’s how to change that.
It was something subtle, but the principal felt it sent the wrong message to her Latino English language learners. Their teachers never spoke to Latino students in Spanish, although they knew quite a few Spanish words. Classroom aides spoke in Spanish, teachers only in English, and the principal feared this communicated the message that Spanish was devalued. To combat the message, she found opportunities to chat with her Spanish-speaking students in their home language (Carr, 1995).
This principal may have been sensitive to subtle messages for language learners because she was Latina. We need more principals who come from cultures currently in the minority in the United States to make the mix of people leading schools more reflective of the students in those schools.
The Dearth of Minority Principals …
As the consensus has moved to the view that all students must attain excellence to compete in a global economy, traditional roles for educators have shifted. None has shifted more than the role of the principal. We now expect principals to be instructional leaders who create conditions and processes that significantly improve student achievement.
In addition to society’s changing expectations, the demographics of U.S. schools have changed. The percentage of students in public schools who belong to a racial or ethnic minority group increased from 22 percent in 1972 to 43 percent in 2006, with a corresponding decrease from 78 percent to 57 percent in the percentage of white students enrolled (Planty et al., 2008). Unfortunately, the demographics of school principals have not changed. In the 2007–08 school year, only 17.6 percent of principals of all U.S. schools were from minority backgrounds (Battle & Gruber, 2009). In rural areas, 9.3 percent were minorities; and in small towns, just 6.2 percent were minorities.
This mismatch is a problem. Leadership that represents the cultural and ethnic groups that make up U.S. society is important for all students because the world students will join as adults is richly diverse. And minority principals can make unique contributions to students’ levels of comfort, motivation, and achievement in schools with high populations of minorities.
Goldsmith (2004) found that Latino and black students held more optimistic, more pro-school beliefs in schools with high numbers of minority students, especially when the school employed many minority teachers. Research shows that black and Latino administrators are effective role models for minority students (Magdaleno, 2006; Tillman, 2004). This role modeling is significant to those learners’ identity development and future aspirations (Sanchez, Thornton, & Usinger, 2008).
Because minority principals share experiences and cultural understandings with students who come from the same background, they can link students, parents, and other educational stakeholders while modeling success for everyone.
Positive role modeling may be coupled with a style of interacting that is comfortable to students from the same cultural background as a minority administrator. Because of this familiarity, the style may be—or may feel—less controlling and more empowering. Personal interactions that show caring are likely to be an important part of the administrator’s style.
Although principals from any background can empathize with students, some minority principals’ understandings about students’ home environments may help them determine rewards or consequences more appropriately. Minority administrators often use methods that connect well with students in minority-majority schools and enable students to creatively resolve issues (Carr, 1995; Reitzug & Patterson, 1998).
For example, at one high school, a principal of American Indian background was preparing for the annual school field trip for freshmen. While browsing through field trip permission forms, he noted that many of the American Indian students who lived on the nearby reservation had not handed theirs in. Having lived on a reservation himself, this leader was aware of the potential anxiety or fear that families often feel when a family member travels far from the reservation. He met with each student individually and discussed with each the potential benefits of taking the trip to broaden their perspectives. He also phoned parents to alleviate the sense of risk. Students became empowered to have these discussions with their parents, and soon most submitted their forms.
In essence, minority leaders may be able to empathize with certain students’ experiences in a way that positively influences those students’ academic expectations and aspirations. We can’t afford to lose that potential positive influence.
… And What We Can Do About It
Unfortunately, long-standing barriers to increasing the pool of minority principal candidates exist throughout the system. The struggle to get more minorities entering administrative preparation programs parallels the struggles to pursue education many ethnic groups have endured. As we have described previously (Sanchez, Thornton, & Usinger, 2008), these barriers include (1) the status of the education pipeline (fewer minorities graduate from high school in general); (2) recruitment of minorities into other fields once they get to college; (3) barriers within the education pathways (for example, subtly biased testing, or being passed over for promotions); (4) inadequate salaries; (5) traditional leadership programs that do not often teach prospective principals about their ethnic influence as leaders; and (6) a lack of multicultural perspectives within a leadership program’s curriculum.
These barriers are not insurmountable. Existing leaders must become proactive in helping to make the pool of school leaders more varied. Here are some suggestions for how to start.
Tap National Board–Certified Teachers
The number of teachers achieving certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has increased by seven percent from 2005 to 2006 (Keller, 2007). Keller noted that within individual groups, the number of Hispanic teachers achieving certification increased by 13 percent and the number of black teachers increased by 24 percent. The number of American Indian teachers achieving certification increased by 50 percent, but actual numbers were very small.
National Board–certified teachers have greater opportunities to take on leadership roles and tend to stay longer within the education field than do teachers who don’t achieve this certification (Goldhaber & Hansen, 2007). Minority teachers in general also tend to have a lower turnover rate than nonminority teachers (Strunk & Robinson, 2006). This combination of more Board-certified minorities and a population of minority teachers with longevity provides an ideal opportunity for current school leaders to influence high-achieving minority teachers and guide them toward leadership pathways.
We should capitalize on this opportunity. Principals should support promising minority teachers in pursuing National Board certification and, once they’ve achieved certification, emphasize the possibility of pursuing further training to become administrators. Supportive actions might include openly encouraging teachers to pursue National Board certification and other leadership positions (through conversations or written notes); providing subscriptions or library access to leadership journals; and supporting teachers’ attendance at conferences and leadership academies. To give certain teachers confidence and a taste of leadership, administrators should assign them specific responsibilities—for example, organizing a school event or leading a key committee.
Minorities frequently serve as teacher aides, office workers, volunteers, and translators at schools with a high concentration of minority students. We should encourage such staff members who show potential to seek teaching positions (Sanchez et al., 2008), which could eventually lead to school leadership positions. Administrators can provide general opportunities for professional development or directly suggest to a promising paraeducator that she or he become a teacher.
Paraeducators may be stymied by a lack of knowledge about how to navigate the education system. Principals and teachers should be proactive in helping paraeducators understand the possibilities, perhaps arranging an after-school presentation on how to become a teacher or distributing information to all support staff about teacher-training programs. Encouragement should be gradual and ongoing so no one feels pressured.
In one school, the principal and teachers began by providing paraeducators with more hands-on responsibilities, such as teaching small groups, serving as substitute teachers, or developing instructional units. The principal then invited the school’s paraeducators to attend a national paraeducator conference at the school’s expense and offered to fund summer courses to help them attain substitute licenses, which some did.
Recruit and Mentor
Administrators should see every new hire as a potential future teacher leader, and possibly a future principal. Browne-Ferrigno and Muth (2004) stress administrators’ responsibility to actively recruit potential principals from minority teachers whom they have hired and mentored. Principals who take this responsibility to heart
have close relationships with prospective principals, whom they recruit through established long-term interaction and [to whom they] provide career guidance and professional support that transcends skills development and initial socialization. … Principals who “courted” and “relentlessly” recruited their protégés provided the greatest influence on the teachers’ decisions to become principals. (p. 476)
Well-structured mentoring programs must be established in schools for minority teachers who want to pursue administrative positions and for new minority principals. At the most basic level, principals can foster collaborative environments in which teachers mentor one another and encourage one another to pursue National Board certification and other endorsements.
Brown-Ferrigno and Muth (2004) identify several effective practices principals can take to encourage teachers who are considering becoming administrators. One fruitful practice is formally sharing some administrative duties and responsibilities with such teachers. This practice enhances role socialization, the process that allows teachers to become comfortable with the role, norms, and realities of administrative leadership. For example, principals might arrange for a substitute to cover a key teacher’s class to enable that teacher to attend administrative meetings or work on selected committees. More duties might be released gradually until the teacher actually fills in for the principal for part of the day.
Attract High Schoolers to Education Careers
Some school systems have taken steps to attract more minority youth into four-year colleges and teaching careers. For example, the school district of Reno, Nevada, partnered with the University of Nevada to establish the Dean’s Future Scholars (DFS) Program. Dean’s Future Scholars recruits into teacher education programs minority students from low-income families who would be the first in their families to attend college. The program invites 50 6th grade students into the program each year and continues to work with these students until they reach college age.
During a seven-week summer institute at the university, these scholars attend conferences and classes designed to spark their interest in college. They participate in academic enrichment, leadership, and confidence-building activities. Workshops address such topics as preparing for and applying to college, financial aid, and financial literacy. Students tour the campus and learn about the academic programs offered at the University of Nevada and the courses high school students must take to pursue different majors and careers. All workshops include a component that develops students’ interest in teacher education. In addition, workshop leaders expose students to professional associations for educators. Mentors help students examine their academic progress and guide them in setting goals and pursuing an academic curriculum.
In 2006, the first cohort of future scholars graduated from high school, and nearly 50 percent enrolled in college; that number increased to 80 percent for the second cohort (Marsh, 2007). We would like to see more teachers, counselors, and principals develop this kind of programming with local universities to inspire minority students to attend college.
A Concerted Duty
Many nonminority administrators committed to working in minority-majority schools try hard and succeed in connecting well with students, motivating them, and resolving issues with empathy and creativity. Still, as U.S. schools become more culturally and ethnically diverse, current leaders have a duty to tap the untapped potential of minority school leaders. Recognizing the contributions such leaders can make to student achievement, we must encourage and enable them to reach the principalship. Each person we encourage and each barrier we remove provides one more opportunity to increase diversity in public education leadership.
Battle, D., & Gruber, K. (2009). Characteristics of public, private, and Bureau of Indian Education elementary and secondary school principals in the United States: Results from the 2007–2008 Schools and Staffing Survey (NCES 2009-323). National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Browne-Ferrigno, T., & Muth, R. (2004). Leadership mentoring in clinical practice: Role socialization, professional development, and capacity building. Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(4), 468–494.
Carr, C. S. (1995, October). Mexican American female principals: In pursuit of democratic praxis and a legacy of caring. Paper presented at annual meeting of the University Council for Educational Administration, Salt Lake City, UT.
Goldhaber, D., & Hansen, M. (2007). National board certification and teacher career path: Does NBPTS certification influence how long teachers remain in the profession and where they teach? Arlington, VA: National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Available: www.nbpts.org/UserFiles/File/NBPTS_CP-FinalReport_1-22-07rev.pdf
Goldsmith, P. A. (2004). Schools’ racial mix, students’ optimism, and the black-white and Latino-white achievement gaps. Sociology of Education, 77(2), 121–147.
Keller, B. (2007). More minority teachers earn national certification. Education Week, 26(21), 14.
Magdaleno, K. R. (2006). Mentoring Latino school leaders. Leadership, 36(1), 12–14.
Marsh, Z. (2007). Dean’s future scholars program promotes diverse student achievement. Reno: University of Nevada Reno, News Room. Available: http://newsroom.blogs.unr.edu/2007/06/22/deans-future-scholars-program-promotes-diverse-student-achievement/
McKenzie, K. B., Christman, D. E., Hernandez, F., Fierro, E., Capper, C. A., Dantley, M., et al. (2008). From the field: A proposal for educating leaders for social justice. Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(1), 111–138.
Planty, M., Hussar, W., Snyder, T., Provasnik, S., Kena, G., Dinkes, R., et al. (2008). The Condition of Education 2008 (NCES 2008-031). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.
Reitzug, U. C., & Patterson, J. (1998). “I’m not going to lose you!” Empowerment through caring in an urban principal’s practice with students. Urban Education, 33(2), 150–181.
Sanchez, J., Thornton, B., & Usinger, J. (2008). Promoting diversity in public education. Promoting diversity within public education leadership. International Journal of Educational Leadership Preparation, 3(3), 1–10. Available: http://cnx.org/content/m18745/latest
Strunk, K., & Robinson, J. P. (2006). Oh, won’t you stay: A multilevel analysis of the difficulties in retaining qualified teachers. Peabody Journal of Education, 81(4), 65–94.
Tillman, L. C. (2004). African American principals and the legacy of Brown. Review of Research in Education, 28(1), 101–146.
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