Why Representation Matters in Our Schools

Learn how representation allows students of color to see themselves reflected in the educators and leaders that surround them at school—and then imagine bigger and bolder dreams for themselves.
Hispanic school principal reading with a Hispanic studentHispanic school principal reading with a Hispanic student
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Today, half of all students in K-12 public schools identify as people of color, while only one in five school principals does. Only 11 percent of principals are Black, and just nine percent are Hispanic. This difference is called the representation gap in school leadership. A similar gap exists in district boardrooms across the nation as our K-12 school systems are led predominantly by white men (73 percent). Only eight percent of superintendents identify as leaders of color.

Representation means that school principals, teachers, or other school-based leaders reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the local communities they serve. Representation allows students of color to see themselves reflected in the educators and leaders that surround them at school—and then imagine bigger and bolder dreams for themselves.

We know representation matters in other aspects of our society. Think of the value of multicultural literature that invites readers of all ages to expand their understanding of cultures other than their own. Think of Black Panther or Myles Morales as the new Spiderman or Marvel’s first Asian-American superhero, Shang-Chi, that hit movie theaters this fall.

Our education secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, who was an English-language learner in school—like nearly five million students are today—serves as the top education leader in our country. His lived experience shapes how he leads and how he elevates the needs of all students. Representation matters because it fuels student success.

Why representation in school leadership matters

We know great school principals build great schools. They can add up to three months of additional learning for students. When a school principal is a leader of color, research shows higher student achievement and better school outcomes specifically for teachers and children of color.

A study from Vanderbilt University, for example, found that Black and Hispanic students are better represented in gifted programs when they attend schools led by principals who share their racial identity. Leaders of color have also been found to hold higher expectations and create school cultures that are more supportive and sustainable for teachers of color.

A school culture that is free from bias and limitation benefits all students. Students of color get to see their role models in action as they challenge stereotypes, replace inequitable systems, and build learning environments rooted in respect, high expectations, and inclusivity. That kind of leadership benefits white students too.

Far too often, disparities within our education system create unequal access to resources, opportunities, and support. This is especially true for students of color and students from communities with lower incomes. Representation does not fix these larger systemic challenges, but research shows that diversity in leadership leads to better student outcomes.

Why teacher representation matters

Representation gaps exist in classrooms across the country too. The majority of public-school educators are women (76 percent), with only 20 percent identifying as teachers of color. And just two percent identify as African American and male.

Like great principals, teachers change lives. Research shows teachers of color have a powerful and lasting impact beyond their classroom. A longitudinal study found that Black teachers in elementary schools increase the likelihood of Black students attending college and decrease the likelihood of dropping out of high school, particularly among Black males.

Student achievement gains are also linked to teacher leadership. When teacher leaders are involved in schoolwide decision-making processes and sit on instructional leadership teams led by their principals, student performance improves. This kind of shared leadership, known as distributed leadership, also leads to higher teacher retention and overall job satisfaction.

It’s a popular misconception that the best principals are like superheroes, leaping over tall buildings and single-handedly improving schools. The idea cannot be further from the truth. Students thrive when leaders at every level work together toward equity and excellence.

What can be done?

New Leaders is working to close the representation gap and accelerate the learning of all students. Through our programming and district partnerships, we build diverse pipelines of leadership talent and develop equity-focused leaders who:

  • Promote a mindset in all members of their team that all children can learn at exceedingly high levels
  • Create an inclusive environment that allows all faculty, staff, parents, and students to feel safe, valued, cared for, and seen
  • Provide all students access to effective, high-quality curricula that are both academically rigorous and culturally responsive/relevant
  • Create systems and structures that equitably distribute resources
  • Consider the impact of their decision-making and policies on historically marginalized groups

We know representation matters. We know equity-focused leadership matters too. With teachers of color leaving the profession at higher rates than their white colleagues, now is the time to diversify education at every level, from teachers to principals to superintendents.

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