The Power Gap in K-12 Education

The education field has paid much attention to the need to diversify the teacher workforce. But what about education leadership? Students seeing themselves represented in their principals and superintendents has a direct impact on their experiences with the school system and their future aspirations. Research finds that in districts with diverse leadership, discipline disparities between students of color and white students significantly diminish. And students of color are more likely to be identified for advanced coursework opportunities in schools with a leader of color.

So how are Massachusetts districts doing when it comes to gender and racial equity in education leadership?

To answer this question we teamed up with the Women’s Power Gap Initiative of the Eos Foundation for a multi-year research project zeroing in on disparities in K-12 leadership. We investigated the largest 180 school districts in the state to find out whether they have ever had a female superintendent or a superintendent of color. We analyzed the career paths of K-12 leaders, pored over state data, and interviewed district administrators.

The result is our latest report, The Power Gap in Massachusetts K-12 Education, which contains a slew of never-before-seen data on inequalities in education leadership, along with an answer to our question about how Massachusetts is doing with equity in K-12 leadership.

We found that 80% of Massachusetts school districts with more than 1,500 students have never had a permanent superintendent of color. As of 2020, only 5% of Massachusetts superintendents are people of color, even though 43% of Massachusetts students are people of color. Meanwhile 17% of districts have never had a permanent female superintendent, and only 39% of current superintendents are female, despite the fact that 76% of the teaching force is female.

What is keeping women and people of color from being hired as district leaders?

While women, as a whole, out-qualify men when it comes to education, credentials, and experience, men progress to the superintendency much more quickly and at a much higher rate. Data shows that being a middle or high school principal frequently offers a direct path to the superintendency for men, who make up a majority of these positions. Among superintendents in our 180-district dataset, 30% of men went straight from a principalship to the superintendency, while only 9% of women took that same path. Women are much more likely to advance into a central office role first and hold 60% of assistant superintendent positions—the position second in command to the superintendency.

The first-hand experience of Lawrence Superintendent Cynthia Paris, who spoke at our release event on November 9, adds some real-life context to this data.

“I was surprised and also validated in seeing the data where men leapfrog to [leadership] positions. I have many colleagues who I admire, who are white men, in similar positions. And I watched how they went straight from being a principal to the superintendency. I thought I could never do that,” said Paris. “There was this doubt because credentials felt like something that needed to be proven as a woman. I think that narrative comes from the stories we see in front of us, what is actually manifested in our districts and communities. If I don’t see other women of color who have challenged that narrative, it’s really intimidating for someone like me to say, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’”

Our research found that people of color are severely underrepresented at every level of public education in Massachusetts, making up 9% of teachers, 12% of principals, 14% of assistant superintendents, and only 5% of superintendents. Educators of color report that racism, discrimination, and microaggressions in the workplace make being a leader incredibly difficult and may prevent people of color from seeking superintendent positions. And once in the role, superintendents of color are often either pushed out or choose to move to other positions for more job security and support within the role.

“You have to believe in yourself that you deserve to be there. Because most often you will be walking into spaces where people don’t think you deserve to be there or don’t even want you there,” said Cheryl Watson-Harris, Superintendent of Dekalb County Georgia and a former Network Superintendent for Boston Public Schools, who also spoke at the release event. “If the larger mission means that much to you and you are good at what you do, you have to demand your seat at the table, or bring your own chair to the table.”

Our research found the presence of a persistent glass ceiling for women and people of color to reach the superintendency. Deeply embedded cultural, systemic, and institutional barriers and biases continue to favor white, male leadership in Massachusetts’ K-12 schools.

“White-dominant and patriarchal norms are deeply ingrained in ideas of leadership. We found that men are often chosen to become superintendents based on personal attributes, while women are often hired for professional qualifications. Many female leaders we spoke with, especially women of color, expressed needing to work twice as hard and be twice as qualified to be considered for leadership positions,” said Annelise Eaton, the Rennie Center’s Research Director and coauthor of the report.

So what can be done? We recommend a number of changes including investing in diversity, equity, and inclusion training for school committee members, developing more equitable systems for assessing leadership performance, providing pathways to the superintendency for elementary principals, and developing mentor structures for district staff.

Karla Baehr, co-facilitator of the New Superintendent Induction Program and former Superintendent for Franklin, Lowell, and Wellesley Public Schools, offered another suggestion during our release event.

“There are three search organizations that are responsible for most superintendent searches in Massachusetts. They are all white-male-led organizations and the folks that do the searches are predominantly white males. ... I think it’s important to work with the search orgs and helping them broaden and develop their networks,” said Baehr.

While some efforts are being made to diversify the superintendency—like the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Influence 100 program—much more needs to be done.

Meaningful change and progress towards equity requires current leaders to attack the cultural, systemic, and institutional structures and biases that have led to the white- and male-dominant landscape that currently exists in educational leadership. To better serve all the Commonwealth’s children, Massachusetts education leaders must take deliberate action.