Analysis: New Study of the Principal Pipeline Shows Women, African Americans Wait Longer, Are Promoted Less Often Than White Men

(Lisa Marie Patterson)

While America’s teacher workforce is slowly becoming more diverse, principals still tend to be white and male. Only 20 percent of all principals nationwide are nonwhite, and 48 percent are male — a startling overrepresentation relative to the 77 percent of teachers who are women. This means there is a distinct mismatch between the demography of school leaders and that of teachers, who comprise the largest pool of principal candidates. There are major inequalities within the country’s school leadership hierarchies.

Evidence from Texas describes how candidates with different characteristics experience the pathway to the principalship. Our new study in AERA Open looks specifically at the career trajectories of more than 4,000 assistant principals over the past 15 years. It examines the amount of experience candidates had, the types of schools in which they worked and how long it took each assistant principal to receive a promotion. The study follows individuals from their promotion to assistant principal, ensuring that all candidates were eligible for a principal promotion on the same timeline. These controls were included to ensure that all study subjects demonstrated similar aspirations to a principalship.

Despite equivalent qualifications and more experience on average, female and black assistant principals were systematically delayed and denied promotions to principal, when compared with their male or white counterparts. Public awareness and activism are essential to changing these patterns.

We found four trends in school leadership:

1 Female and black candidates have to wait longer before being promoted to assistant principal

Men attaining assistant principalships have statistically significantly less experience than women: On average, they enter the high school assistant principalship with approximately 15 fewer months (1.25 years) of experience, and in elementary and middle schools with about 20 fewer months (1.62 years). Women and people of color have to wait longer before promotion to assistant principal, and once there, they wait longer for promotion to a principalship — if they are promoted at all.

2 If black assistant principals are promoted, they wait longer on average than white assistant principals

At every point of promotion, the pool of candidates is whiter and more male, especially compared with the teacher workforce. We find that diversity exists in the pipeline, but women and people of color are squeezed out much earlier than studies of school leadership usually capture. Of the assistant principals in the sample, 66.7 percent were female, compared with a 75 percent female new teacher cohort. Assistant principals in the sample who are white, Hispanic and of other races were approximately equally divided between those who were promoted to principal and those who were not. However, almost twice as many black assistant principals were not promoted (448) as were promoted (242).

3 Though women hold half of all high school assistant principalships in Texas, they are overwhelmingly more likely to be promoted to principal positions in elementary and middle schools

Women’s promotions occur differently in elementary, middle and high schools. There is a gender differential in both time to promotion and the total likelihood of promotion for high school. This means that, even when women worked as an assistant principal in high school (for a longer time and with more initial experience than their male counterparts), they were more likely to be promoted to principalships in elementary schools than in high schools.

Prior to promotion to AP, women have 1.27 more years educational experience at all school levels (1.25 in high school). Then, despite having more initial experience on average, women stay in the assistant principal role longer. In high schools, women on average spend 5.62 years as an assistant principal, versus 4.94 years for men, and they are less likely than men to be promoted to principal even as they gain experience in that role. After 5 to 11 years as an assistant principal, women are still 5 to 7 percent less likely every year to be promoted, despite having more initial experience. Men spend an average of 5.06 years as a high school assistant principal, while women spend an average of 6.27 years (an average gap of 1.21 years).

4 Delayed and denied promotions have lifelong costs

Because a high school principalship is often viewed as a requirement for district leadership, women leading elementary schools are less likely to be tapped for superintendencies and other top district positions. For educators who end their careers as assistant principals, rather than principals, their salaries and subsequent retirement distributions are lower on average. Average elementary and high school principal salaries differ by a statistically significant $7,070.76 per year, according to our calculations, using Texas Education Agency data. This means that women and people of color experience financial inequities associated with nonpromotion.

Researchers predict a national shortage of principals while simultaneously identifying gender and race disparities within the principal workforce. This means that while schools appear to face an impending crisis of leadership, qualified leaders may be removed from the pipeline early in the process because of their race or gender. At every opportunity for promotion, the hierarchy of school and district leadership gets increasingly homogeneous.

School leadership pathways sort women and people of color in ways that are detrimental to both school systems and the people they serve. This study is a call to reconsider what are deemed leaderly qualities and behaviors and the ways in which they tend to be associated with one type of principal candidate. If schools and school systems are serious about improvement, they must be willing to examine the pathways to promotion and the degree to which all qualified candidates are likely to ascend to the principalship. In light of a rapidly diversifying student body, increasing the diversity of school leadership is not an option: It is a mandate.

Lauren P. Bailes is an assistant professor of education leadership in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. She researches school leadership preparation and evaluation, school organizational characteristics, and the intersection of school leadership and policy. Sarah Guthery is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Her research and teaching focus on new teacher training and the influence of educational policy on labor market outcomes.

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