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Diversity lacking among school superintendents, study finds

Joseph Williams
Diversity lacking among school superintendents, study finds
PHOTO: COURTESY TEACH FOR AMERICA

Second only to California in the number of school-age children, Texas is at the vanguard of a long-anticipated national demographic trend: most of the state’s 5.4 million public school students are Black and Latino, surpassing whites as the majority population.

But a new study found that the army of superintendents who run school districts in the Lone Star state — top administrators who control local curriculums, budgets, and disciplinary policies — is dominated by white men.

The University of Texas at Austin study, titled “Untapped Talent: An 11-Year Analysis of the Texas Superintendent Workforce,” also found that women and minorities in the field typically are underpaid compared to whites, more often work in under-resourced urban schools and struggle to advance to higher-paying positions in better-funded schools.

“The superintendent workforce doesn’t reflect the state student population,” resulting in white educators setting policies and standards for Black and brown students, says David DeMatthews, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of Texas at Austin College of Education. DeMatthews was lead researcher on the study and one of its co-authors.

“About 80% of superintendents in Texas are white, despite the fact that the majority of students in Texas are students of color, and only 27% of students in Texas are white,” DeMatthews says. “And the teachers (41% minority) and principals (roughly 40% minority) are slightly more diverse than the superintendency.”

Moreover, “what we’ve found was women, people of color, and women of color are more likely to serve in school districts that serve higher poverty students,” DeMatthews says. Even though population shifts have brought more minority students to rural areas during the last decade, he says, the superintendent workforces there are still mostly white.

A National Problem

While the “Untapped Talent” study revealed problems deep in the heart of Texas, the lack of superintendent diversity “is a national problem,” DeMatthews says. It’s a challenge to get a grasp on the issue, he says, because the federal government “does not collect data on superintendent demographics.”

Examples, however, aren’t hard to find.

In California, there are 947 public school districts but roughly 25 African American superintendents. Across the country, in Kentucky, there are 171 public school districts but just six Black superintendents. While 18% of Michigan’s public school students are Black, only 4% of its superintendents are  — and most of them work in majority-Black, economically disadvantaged districts.

At the same time, though, the nation is experiencing a crisis: more superintendents are quitting, a situation which, in theory, should provide more opportunities for candidates of color.

But the rise of far-right education activists like Moms for Liberty — a group that’s pushed for the banning of certain books, fought against the teaching of slavery’s role in the founding of the U.S., and doesn’t like diversity initiatives — has made it challenging for school districts to hire superintendents of color.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, for instance, Ryan Walters, the state superintendent of schools — a Moms for Liberty supporter — tried to pressure the city’s school board to reject Dr. Ebony Johnson, a Black woman serving as the interim superintendent. However, in December, the board ignored Walters, rebuffed racist attacks against Johnson and voted 4-2 to confirm her as the city’s first Black superintendent.

A Microcosm of Trends

Still, Texas has been a microcosm of demographic trends current and aspiring superintendents of color across the country are facing.

According to the report:

n Perhaps not surprisingly, Texas’ city districts have the most diverse superintendent corps. While the percentage of Latino superintendents increased from about 20% in 2011 to 25% in 2023, the percentage of Black superintendents decreased from roughly 21% to about 18% during that same period. Meanwhile, the percentage of white superintendents from 2011 to 2023 held steady at about 60% — the same percentage of Latino students in urban districts.

n Suburban districts in Texas had the largest percentage of Black superintendents in 2021, at roughly 19%, but it had declined slightly by 2023. At the same time, the percentage of Latino superintendents increased by about 3% to 21% by 2023. Whites again made up about 65% of superintendents in those districts.

n In Texas’ small-town districts — rural areas outside of the suburbs — whites made up more than 80% of superintendents, even though the Latino student population approached 60% by 2023. While Latino superintendents made up about 18% of superintendents in those districts, Black superintendents remained flat, languishing well below 5%.

DeMatthews says superintendents of color struggle to move up because of bottlenecks in the system.

Women and minorities “tend to move more slowly through the pipeline — from being a teacher to assistant principal and principal and then into a superintendency position,” he says. “So white folks are still kind of moving faster. And so that clogs up the pipeline to some extent.”

And when districts have superintendent vacancies, they typically rely on search firms and their own networks, which often overlook or exclude women and minorities.

“They’re kind of tied to certain networks. They have a preference for people with experience,” DeMatthews says. “And so if, historically, superintendents have been white and white men, and there’s a preference for experience, that’s going to maintain the status quo in terms of demography of the superintendency.”

Diversifying  School District Leadership

Still, there are ways to diversify school district leadership, DeMatthews says. School boards and community leaders have to be intentional about finding minority or women candidates, and the University of Texas has training and residency programs that can help put teachers on the path to superintendency.

A mostly white superintendent workforce in the nation’s second most populous state may seem like an esoteric issue for parents who just want their kids to get a quality education. But DeMatthews says the ramifications of the lack of diversity among school administrators extend beyond the classroom.

Besides deciding what students learn and how, superintendents “are the chief executives of local school systems, educators charged with managing a school district’s finances, its instructional vision and programming,” he says. “They’re responsible for communicating with parents and teachers. Some say school superintendents are linchpins holding school systems together.”

Moreover, in an era of book bans, crackdowns on teaching about slavery in the U.S., and the paring down of civics lessons, superintendents “really are critical players in our local democracies.”

This story was published in Word in Black. See wordinblack.com

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