New Research: More Principals of Color May Be the Key to Diversifying the Teacher Workforce

October 18, 2020

By Erin Harless, Manager of Research and Learning, NewSchools Venture Fund

One of the biggest talent challenges facing the education sector today is the demographic mismatch between the students attending PK-12 public schools and the teachers and leaders who serve them. Today’s students are the most diverse in the history of our nation. Yet, the educators who serve them do not reflect this diversity.

The research on the benefits of having a representative teacher workforce for student academic and social-emotional success is clear, which is why we invest in organizations that increase teacher diversity. We also seek to contribute to the field’s understanding of why diversity, equity, and inclusion are essential in the education sector. (Check out Unrealized Impact and Talented, Passionate, and Underrepresented: Investing in Latino Edupreneurs).

But, what about the role of principals in supporting teachers of color?

Dr. Constance Lindsay
Dr. Constance Lindsay

As part of our field-building work, we partnered with Dr. Constance Lindsay, Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina, to support her ongoing research focused on strategies to build a high-quality, diverse educator workforce. Dr. Lindsay recently published a new working paper with Dr. Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University in which they investigate the role of principal-teacher demographic matching in the likelihood of teacher turnover decisions. We are also proud to have sponsored follow-on research that is looking at the associations between principal demographics and student outcomes, which Dr. Lindsay will release in the coming months. As a member of the Research & Learning team at NewSchools, I recently spoke with Dr. Lindsay about her findings and the implications of this research for policymakers.

Erin Harless: Can you give us a brief background of the paper? What were your goals in writing it?

Constance Lindsay: The goal of this paper was to build on the existing race-matching literature to understand the role that diverse principals play in outcomes for teachers. We wanted to understand some of the mechanisms by which a diverse teacher workforce can be developed and maintained. Understanding teacher turnover is part of this work. We know that teachers of color have higher turnover rates than white teachers and are more likely to exit the field. Given the tremendous amount of time and resources that go into hiring and developing teachers, retaining them should be equally as important.

Harless: How does this paper build on your prior research and the existing knowledge base in the field? In what ways do your findings reinforce what was already known or contradict prior findings?

Lindsay: This paper adds to the existing literature by considering school factors in teacher turnover, and also understanding how race and gender might intersect in these relationships. These findings are consistent with the broader literature on diverse principals, but we are able to use individual matching because of the nature of data, which allows us to link teachers directly to principals. We found that there were higher rates of teacher turnover for all teachers of color compared to white teachers; however, being race-matched with a principal leads to lower rates of teacher turnover in both district and charter schools. We also found larger reductions in turnover when teachers of color were race-matched with principals, compared to white teachers and principals.

Harless: Were there any surprises?

Lindsay: We didn’t find much in our initial analyses on teacher gender. One reason might be that the teaching workforce is largely women, so it’s more difficult to understand patterns in smaller samples. Also, we didn’t find that teacher reports of workplace conditions mattered for the relationships between teachers and principals.

Harless: You noted in the paper that principal-teacher race-matching was not associated with a reduction in teacher turnover for novice teachers specifically. What do you think might explain the different findings for novice teachers vs. all teachers?

Lindsay: There might be a few reasons, one being that novice teachers have less say about which schools and classrooms they’ll work in versus more experienced teachers with greater seniority. We also only observed over a short time window, so follow-up work on how newer teachers change their behaviors over time would be interesting.

Harless: From your perspective, what are some of the key barriers to diversity in the education sector?

Lindsay: There are challenges at all stages of the teacher human capital pipeline. At the heart of the lack of teacher diversity are K-12 achievement gaps that prevent students of color from gaining access to college and getting the requisite bachelor’s degree that is generally required to be a teacher. In a data visualization for the Urban Institute, we found that students of color are underrepresented in schools of education and education majors outside of the nation’s Minority Serving Institutions, which produce more than their fair share of educators of color. There are then challenges with regard to implicit bias and outright discrimination around licensure and certification, hiring, and retention. There are multiple points in the professional lifecycle of a teacher where policymakers and interested stakeholders could intervene to create and maintain the high-quality diverse workforce that students need.

Harless: This study was focused on teachers and principals in North Carolina. Are the findings generalizable?

Lindsay: These findings would be generalizable to states with similar workforce demographics as North Carolina (i.e. South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida). One limitation is that there are few non-Black teachers of color (and even fewer non-Black leaders of color), so generally the results are driven by white-white and Black-Black teacher-leader matches.

Harless: In the paper, you discuss policy implications for the education sector. If you were advising a superintendent of a large school district, what would you suggest they do next, given these findings?

Lindsay: Besides growing the pool of diverse leaders more generally, I would encourage system leaders to think about how their teachers of color are distributed across the district, how those teachers are supported, and ways to train white leaders on issues such as implicit bias. From a long-term perspective, I would advise a system leader to think about how leaders are developed in the district, and how those pipelines might include training on culturally responsive teaching and leading, and how those might be pipelines that can be used to recruit diverse leaders into the field.

Harless: To your knowledge, are there any districts or regions in the U.S. that are successfully diversifying the principal and/or teacher workforce?

Lindsay: There are lots of promising initiatives happening around the country. In my opinion, the most promising programs are “grow your own” initiatives where districts recruit and prepare diverse teachers and leaders. Some examples of these are Urban Teachers, the Capital Teaching Residency, and many of the teaching fellows programs. [Editor’s note: NewSchools Venture Fund has supported several of these promising programs through our Diverse Leaders portfolio, including Teach Western Mass Teacher Residency and the Oakland’s Latino/a Educator Recruitment and Retention Initiative.] These programs have the ability to meet the local needs of the communities where they are located. Because of the national attention around teacher diversity, most education stakeholders are at least aware of the issues. Other promising efforts include NYC Men Teach. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper recently signed an executive order creating a task force on diversifying the teacher workforce. I am aware of similar efforts in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Harless: What is next on your research agenda?

Lindsay: My work focuses on closing racial achievement gaps and the educator workforce diversity. I am really interested in questions of equity and leadership, including the effects of diverse principals on student outcomes, and in particular, understanding the role that leaders play in producing equitable outcomes for all students. I will be looking at career trajectories of education leaders of color. Finally, I will be updating prior research on the role of out-of-school factors in achievement gaps.