Promising Practices: How to Increase School Leader Diversity

We can do more to systematically improve the strength and diversity of our nation’s principals. Here’s what our research tells us—and here’s where districts and states are making an impact.
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“Everywhere I looked, leadership didn’t look like me. But our students did,” reflects Danielle Edwards, a school leader and Spelman College alumna. She decided to step into leadership because she wanted to have a greater impact in her community. Motivated by her students, she began to chart a path forward. In the absence of guidelines and a career pathway, she relied on her network of Spelman sisters and like-minded colleagues to help her navigate her leadership journey.

The lack of clear leadership pathways for educators of color is not uncommon. These barriers continue to prevent teachers of color from moving into leadership roles. Today, 54 percent of all K-12 public school students identify as people of color, yet only 22 percent of our nation’s principals and eight percent of our superintendents do. This is known as the representation gap. 

Our New Paper - The Shoulder Tap - New Leaders - Education Leadership Development

Our new paper, The Shoulder Tap: Educators of Color on the Leadership Representation Gap and What We Can Do About It, explores strategies for recruiting and retaining diverse school leaders at a time when students need them most. We partnered with Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College to examine existing research and elevate insights from the lived experiences of educators of color like Danielle Edwards whose voices are essential to this national conversation. 

“That tap on the shoulder, when someone you trust sees your brilliance and leadership potential, can be miraculous,” adds April D. Broussard, also a Spelman alumna and aspiring principal. Education leaders of color overwhelmingly point to mentorship—and that tap on the shoulder from a trusted colleague—as the first step on the path to school leadership. 

While each tap on the shoulder matters, we can do more to systematically improve the strength and diversity of our nation’s principals. Here’s how three districts and two states are actively building more equitable and diverse pipelines to the top.

Baltimore City Public Schools

CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises and her team at Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools) leverage outside partners, such as Towson University, to help advance local school leader diversity goals. City Schools also partners with our National Aspiring Principals Fellowship to recruit and prepare school leaders of color in partnership with Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. 

Cleveland Metropolitan School District 

CEO Eric Gordon and his team at Cleveland Metropolitan School District launched the “Teach Cleveland” initiative to encourage educators—and future school leaders—from across the country to move to Cleveland for a meaningful career and an affordable and desirable lifestyle. The campaign puts special emphasis on recruiting Hispanic and LGBTQ educators by highlighting local community assets.

Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District

Superintendent Dr. Greg Rodriguez and officials in Edcouch-Elsa Independent School District in Texas are strengthening and diversifying leadership by deploying a targeted, personalized recruitment strategy focused on bilingual candidates of color from other communities.

Kentucky Department of Education

To help close the representation gap in Kentucky, Dr. Wayne Lewis championed legislation that increased nontraditional routes into the classroom during his tenure as Commissioner of Education. He included pathways for paraprofessionals who are often overlooked and typically more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse than the existing teacher workforce. He also supported changes in principal hiring in the largest school district in Kentucky.

Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary  Education (DESE)

Former Senior Associate Commissioner Dr. Ventura Rodriguez and Massachusetts officials launched a number of diversity initiatives during his tenure, including the Teacher Diversification Pilot Program Grant. These initiatives helped schools to identify and support racially and ethnically diverse talent through a wide range of investments—including tuition assistance, exam vouchers, loan reimbursement, relocation assistance, and signing bonuses. Since these programs launched, retention rates for administrators, teachers, and paraprofessionals of color have increased.

Representation—the ability to see yourself reflected in the leaders around you—allows you to see what is possible and to imagine bigger and bolder dreams for yourself. Research shows that all students, and especially students of color, have improved opportunities and outcomes when they see diverse teachers and leaders working together to build more equitable schools. For more success stories, read about New Leaders alum Daniela Anello in EdWeek.

By diversifying our teacher and school leader pipelines, we empower more students to realize their futures as the next generation of leaders for our society. The Shoulder Tap calls on local, state, and federal officials to enact policies to systematically improve the strength and diversity of our nation’s principal corps. When we create more equitable opportunities for educators of color to grow as leaders and advance in their careers, all students, and especially students of color, thrive. 

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