Women of color make up about 3 percent of the country’s K-12 superintendents. But there are a lot of unknowns about their path to the superintendency, the skills they bring to the job, and the reasons they’re hired for the role.

Some new research is beginning to point to specific talents that they bring to the job, including deep instructional expertise and strong communications skills.

That’s the conclusion from a recent analysis based on data from AASA, the School Superintendents Association by Angel Miles Nash, a program officer at the Wallace Foundation, and Margaret Grogan, professor emeritus at Chapman University in Orange, Calif.

Their findings give a rare glimpse into that world, at a time when there’s a brighter spotlight on women in leadership inside and outside of K-12 education. Women of color lead or have led some of the country’s largest school systems, from Monifa B. McKnight in Montgomery County, Md., to Kyla Johnson-Trammell, the superintendent in Oakland, Calif., to Janice K. Jackson, the former CEO of the Chicago district, and Sharon Contreras, the former superintendent of the Guilford County district in Greensboro, N.C.

Nash said her goal in focusing on women of color in district leadership is “to uplift the wonderful things that are happening, the nuanced aspects of their leadership,” that don’t get enough attention. The challenges have been chronicled at length, she said.

“There has to be a space where we also intentionally acknowledge the successes and the breakthroughs that Black women and women of color have achieved,” she said. “I think they should get more credit for having done all the great things that they have done in spite of things being set up against them.”

Why districts seek women of color

In answers to the researchers’ more than 70 survey questions to 1,265 district leaders, female superintendents of color said they were hired for their instructional leadership abilities, followed by their capacity to be change agents, their savvy at communicating with stakeholders, and for personal character traits such as honesty, integrity, and tact.

The superintendents were asked to select from a pool of answers, and they were able to choose more than one.

Among all the options, they were less likely to say they got the job because of their ability to be a political leader on education issues and to manage financial resources, according to Nash’s research.

Once on the job, the female superintendents of color said they spent most of their time on financial matters, conflict management, school reform/improvement, and superintendent and board relationships. They spent less time on school safety and crisis management, instructional issues, and student discipline, according to the analysis.

More than half of the women leaders of color—about 63 percent—said that leading conversations on race was extremely important, while another 30 percent agreed that it was important, but not extremely important. Only 7 percent said it was not important.

Like other district leaders, female district leaders of color’s education experience is rooted in the classroom, the building level, and district support positions. Among a range of options, they were more likely to select classroom teacher, principal, district-level coordinator or supervisor, and associate superintendent or deputy superintendent among their past professional experiences than they were to pick a non-teaching role such as counselor or the military.

Nearly 33 percent spent five to eight years in the classrooms. A another quarter spent two to four years teaching. Nearly 19 percent taught for 13 or more years.

While classroom experience matters, Nash cautioned there’s a flip side to this. Women spend more time teaching than men—missing out on early school leadership and other leadership opportunities.

But that teaching expertise becomes instrumental when they become superintendents and are responsible for leading academic improvement in an entire district.

“As they have so much experience in the classroom and at the school site, they then become experts in instructional leadership, and that shows really highly for their expertise in leading academic success for their full districts, which is certainly admirable,” Nash said.

Support and career pathways

TThese women have also had to make big life adjustments to accommodate the demands of the job—and to get there. They were more likely to say they’ve had to change jobs, move, or cut back on their hours or job responsibilities to make it to and persist in the superintendency than to say they’d left the workforce or delayed having children.

And mentoring, a challenge for most women in the education workforce, remained similarly inconsistent for women of color. They were more likely to say they had been mentored by a supervisor or colleague, according to Nash’s analysis, than they were to say they received that kind of support from a principal or professor. In fact, women of color were more than twice as likely to be mentored by a spouse or relative than by a principal or professor.

District leaders of color work in all geographic settings, though they are found in higher numbers in large school districts and urban communities. They also tend to lead districts where more than 51 percent of the students enrolled are students of color.

Nash said the data dive could provide helpful insights and lessons for teachers and principals of color who want to step into district leadership.

“Their leadership is valuable—so valuable that I think others should learn from it,” she said. “They should get double the credit, multiple times over the credit, for what they are able to accomplish in the face of challenges.”

Denisa R. Superville

Assistant Editor, 

Education Week

Denisa R. Superville is an assistant editor at Education Week who focuses on principals and school leadership.

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