The Dearth of African American School Principals

Nov 4, 2016 by

The pool of minority applicants to the principalship is limited. The concern is grave, particularly for the African American population. As the minority population increases in the United States, the demographics of the educators in leadership positions have failed to reflect the student population and still remain majority White (NEA, 2015; SREB, 2013). This could have a negative impact on the learning and success of students in education today.

Exploring the obstacles that impede the path of African American candidates to the principalship will be the primary focus a series of articles here. This series will look into how the school leaders were able to overcome obstacles to the principalship. The author will explore how African American leaders of today meet the needs of a multicultural demographic.

As the demographics of the nation’s student body change, the demographics of the educators do not mirror those of the student body. School districts should be informed, administrators of color or anyone who will serve a multicultural student demographic. Moreover, policy makers need to understand this so as to engage in decisions about principal and teacher preparation programs that will address the need to provide a quality education for all students by putting in place processes to recruit, train, and infuse leaders into a diverse school system.

The limited pool of minority administrators begins with the ostensible lack of minority candidates (Lomotey, 1993; Young & Brooks, 2008). Brown (2005) argued that interest in becoming an educational administrator begins with the attraction to the field at the K–12 level. Students must first enter their postsecondary education with the intent of becoming an educator. Tillman (2004b, 2007) explains that African American educators are the most precious resource in the struggle to educate African American children, as they were prior to desegregation of public schooling. She defined three important areas vital in creating and sustaining valued African American leaders in the pipeline:

(a) recruiting, selecting, and training;

(b) mentoring African Americans for the principalship; and

(c) retaining African American principals.

Therefore, aspiring African American school leaders should be encouraged to participate in professional development activities, such as leadership academies, to increase their competitiveness in the job market (Brown, 2005).

The lack of minorities in educational leadership programs is a mirror to, as well as a consequence of, the struggles that African Americans and minority groups have endured in education over the years. Even after the decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954, 1955) was declared, educational equality and equity were not immediately adopted traits of the public education system. Despite this decision and concerted attempts to create equality, the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups and their White counterparts is still present today (Saddler, 2015).

The dropout rates for African Americans have remained higher than the corresponding dropout rates for European Americans. Lower high school graduation rates lead to lower enrollments in higher education and contribute to a lack of minority teachers who could eventually become prospective principal candidates.

So it is critical to have and support recruitment and retention practices. They are of the utmost importance in relation to increasing the pool of African American candidates (Jackson, 2012). Many potential candidates for leadership positions in our schools lack the resources to attend graduate school.

More Challenges

Candidates who aspire to the position are burdened by student loans or other types of debt, as well as family obligations, that present possible roadblocks to their aspirations. However, there are programs that have taken proactive measures to support able and willing participants (Sanchez et al., 2008). Programs that have proven successful in promoting diversity within public education have a strong foundation and a clear vision for student success.

These programs of higher education often use

(a) problem-based learning,

(b) cohorts,

(c) collaborative partnerships,

(d) field experiences, and

(e) technology to give students skills to be successful in a career in ed administration.

Currently, there do not seem to be any systems to contribute to the recruitment and retention of African American administrators in K–12 education. Traditionally, administrators are required to have classroom teaching experience before becoming principals. However, within this structure, there is a severely limited pool of African American male teachers in the United States. The pool from which to select African American males as school administrators is further diminished.

In general, about 7% of the teaching force is African American, compared to 17% of the student body (NCES, 2010). In 2009–2010, 76% of public school teachers were female, and 50% of public school principals were female (NCES, 2011). During 2007–2008, 10.6% of U.S. public school principals were African American (NCES, 2008b). One of the difficulties in examining these data is that African American males and African American females were placed in one category. Therefore, there are no data from the NCES on the percentage of African American male principals. Considered together, these racial imbalances are alarming and clearly warrant reform in the educational system.

Need for African American Principals

There is a great challenge for African American principals. In addition, most principals come from the teaching ranks and fewer African Americans are entering the teaching profession (Dantley, 2008). According to the NCES (as cited in Echols, 2009), fewer than 2% of the nation’s nearly 3 million public school teachers are African American males. Similarly, the U.S. Census Bureau (2010) statistics reveal that 42% of all African American boys have failed a grade at least once by the time they reach high school, and 60% of African American males who enter high school in the ninth grade do not graduate.

As the need to recruit candidates for the prinicipalship continues, specific barriers continue to serve as challenges for the educational system (Orfield, 2004). Because barriers are often rooted in traditions and norms, effective systemic changes require a great deal of time. Another issue is the high likelihood that African American students will encounter underqualified or out-of-subject-area teachers in their educational careers (Sanchez et al., 2008).

Negative perceptions of careers in education, inequities in testing and admission into teacher education, and the incongruence of minority-group preservice teachers’ experiences with traditional teacher-education curricula are a few other barriers to certifying more African American teachers (Gordon, 2002). Then again, once minority group members have their credentials, they face discrimination in employment practices, culturally discontinuous school climates and taboos about raising issues of racism, lack of promotion opportunities, and failure of others to recognize their leadership skills (Azzam, 2005; Brown, 2005).

Barriers to School Leadership

There are many reasons for minorities not achieving or attaining the principal position; however, the following have been listed throughout the literature, according to Sanchez et al. (2008):

  1. Lower career aspirations result if minorities perceive that the values of the educational system are ignoring or conflicting with their community.
  2. High percentages of minorities major in education, but their aspirations are not encouraged by the educational environment.
  3. Minorities need more support for aspirations but often receive less.
  4. Minorities aspiring for the principalship face conscious or unconscious resistance from the educational system.
  5. Few role models and mentors exist.
  6. Negative stereotypes continue.
  7. There is a lack of research on minority principals and their career aspirations.

Sanchez et al. wrote, “A review of the current status of public education suggests that barriers common in the past decades are still present. A critical review of these obstacles can provide focal points needed to increase minority leaders in education” (Barriers section, para. 1). In an evaluation of the impact of Investing in Diversity (Coleman & Campbell-Stephens, 2010), participants were asked to identify what obstacles they perceived were most prevalent in hindering their career success, and all referred to racism as the one main obstacle they faced. The extent and frequency in which they encountered racism might have varied but was still the primary barrier.

In other words, African American students seem attracted to careers that, at least on the surface, seem more socially attractive. Inadequate salaries also constitute a direct and critical barrier that needs attention. Sanchez et al. (2008) argued that minority students entering college are attracted to business, science, or math degrees that can lead to more lucrative jobs in the future.


The roles of African American principals have played are an important part within the social conditions in which they work. African American principals have acknowledged that race and gender play a part in shaping their roles as administrators and their own views of their mission. As a result of historic and present structures of cultural, political, and economic domination, African Americans are underrepresented in educational leadership positions today. By understanding those African Americans who have become educational leaders, perhaps more young African Americans can aspire to these positions. This could, in turn, help counteract negative images and help encourage social change.


Azzam, A. M. ( 2005). The unprepared administrator. ASCD, 62(8), 88-89.

Brown, F. (2005). African Americans and school leadership: An introduction. Educational Administration Quarterly, 41, 585-590

Coleman, M., & Campbell-Stephens, R. (2010). Perceptions of career progress: The experience of African American and minority ethnic school leaders. School Leadership & Management, 30(1), 35-49.

Echols, C. (2009). Challenges facing African American principals: A conversation about coping. Retrieved from the Connexions website:

Gordon, J. (2002). The color of teaching revisited. Multicultural Perspectives, 4(2), 3-7.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). 1999–2000 SASS questionnaires. Retrieved from

National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). Digest of education statistics 2010. Washington, DC: Author.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2008a). Digest of education statistics 2007. Washington, DC: Author.

Sanchez, J., Thornton, B., & Usinger, J. (2008). Promoting diversity in public education leadership. Retrieved from the Connexions Web site: m18745/1.2/

Tillman, L. C. (2008). The scholarship of Dr. Asa G. Hilliard, III: Implications for Black principal leadership. Review of Educational Research, 78, 589-607.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2010). Home page. Retrieved from

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