Tamara Littlejohn has been principal at Chicago Public Schools for a decade. As a black woman in this role, she belongs to a small minority.
“I really do this work because I want to make sure the #1 kids have someone who looks like them,” she said. As a child, Littlejohn’s mother was her role model, having served as both a teacher at the Chicago Public Schools and an assistant principal.
“I just saw the dedication and love she had for her school community,” Littlejohn said.
Fifteen years ago, the national non-profit New Leaders offered Littlejohn the opportunity to train as a school administrator like her mother. Since 2001, the organization has trained teachers to become administrators through its core preparatory program, Aspiring Principals. Littlejohn completed a one-year internship working with a high school principal and receiving leadership coaching. She is now the principal of Carter G. Woodson Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side.
“I just want to have a lasting impact on my students and my teachers,” Littlejohn said. “When we think about future leaders, we want to make sure that our kids have a wide range of choices about what careers might be, that kids see themselves in others and say, ‘Okay, I see Mrs. Littlejohn, I can do that , to.'”
Research shows that black students and teachers benefit from having black women as principals. Just under 11 percent of the nation’s public school principals are black, and black women in particular make up 7 percent of principals nationwide. New Leaders is one of a number of programs working to expand the number of color principles. In March, it announced a new initiative, the Aspiring Principals Fellowship, which offers an online major certification and master’s degree program with historically black institutions, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. The majority of New Leaders graduates are women, and nearly half are women of color. Separately, the Surge Institute, which educates and develops leaders of color, sponsors the Black Principals Network, an online space for black administrators focused on self-care and sustainability through problem-solving and community building.
The development of black educators into school leaders and the support they need when serving in those roles is having a positive impact on students of color, recent research has found. More than half of all public school students are children of color, and black principals generally lead to higher student achievement for these students, while black female principals specifically encourage greater “collective responsibility” among teachers. This means their staff are investing more in student learning, improving schools and supporting their peers, the studies show.
“If you look at education, the two most important factors in school that affect student performance outcomes are the quality of the teacher and the quality of the principal,” said Jean Desravines, CEO of New Leaders. “Now, if you want to drive results at scale, the only way to do it is through the school leader, who sets the vision, creates the culture and helps identify, develop, support and inspire great teachers. If you want a collective of great teachers at scale, you need effective, transformative leaders.”
Researchers have found that color principles provide multiple benefits for students of color. A University of Minnesota study on the impact of black women principals in secondary schools, released in January, linked black principals and higher math achievement for students. Black men make up a slim majority of black secondary school principals, but the researchers suggest that black women in these roles have a positive effect on student achievement and teacher investment in schools.
Nicola Alexander, professor of leadership, policy and development at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, said the results suggest efforts should be made to increase the number of black women principals in middle and high schools. Often, however, female teachers are relegated to leading elementary schools, while males are seen as natural suitors for secondary schools, Alexander said. Assumptions about what makes a good leader can lead to black women being excluded from managerial roles despite their strengths, she continued.
“Black women are committed to changing a negative school culture with limited support and they are fighting against systemic discrimination,” Alexander said. “Part of the success of black women principals is that they teach appropriate leadership in a way that ensures that the teachers who report to them have a collective responsibility for all students. I think it’s also their experience of being discriminated against on two fronts, gender and race, that gives them a lived experience, that adds a lens to their leadership that might not be as obvious to other groups.”
A 2019 study by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that black school principals in Tennessee and Missouri increase the odds of hiring black teachers by 5 to 7 percent. Blacks make up about 13 percent of the US population, but only about 7 percent of public school teachers. Black principals are also more likely to retain black teachers because they have a 2 to 3 percent lower turnover rate.
“Interestingly, we also find that black students perform better in math when they have a black principal, whether or not they have a black teacher,” said Jason A. Grissom, professor of public policy and education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. Grissom co-authored the 2019 study on Black School Leaders, Teacher Diversity, and Student Achievement.
He said the performance gains related to black principals may have been due to a variety of factors. Grissom found that black school administrators were less likely than non-black school administrators to expel black students for suspension from school. When a black student has a minor to moderate misconduct, black school leaders may be more inclined to explore alternatives to remove black children from class and interrupt their class time. They can also emphasize culturally responsive learning, include black families in the school community, and make equity a focus of teaching, even if their teachers aren’t particularly diverse, Grissom said.
When black principals hire black teachers, he added, those educators tend to be highly qualified professionals with a track record of helping students. This undermines the argument that such admins are simply hiring friends, Grissom said.
“Sometimes there’s this debate about whether there’s a trade-off between more diversity and a more effective faculty,” he said. “And I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. There’s a really good argument that other researchers are making that diversity is a dimension of quality. It’s something you want to appreciate for its own sake; It brings benefits to your school. Also, in our particular case, when people tapped into these more diverse networks, more effective teachers could be brought in.”
Although black principals, particularly women, offer advantages to schools, women of color serving as vice principals typically wait longer to be promoted to principals than do men or white women. The costs and processes associated with earning the advanced degrees and professional credentials needed to become an administrator also present barriers for black educators, Grissom said. Helping educators fund additional schooling or eliminating entrance exams could help increase the number of black principals. The tests can cost several hundred dollars and don’t necessarily predict how successful a potential principal will be, he added.
New Leaders will offer $5,000 in scholarships to its scholarship recipients to help offset the cost of the online major certification and master’s degree program. The organization launched a pilot of the scholarship program earlier this year and will be accepting applications for the full launch in late April. The scholarship starts in January 2023.
“Cost is our priority,” Desravines said. “We don’t want people going into debt to get a certification or a masters.”
According to the Surge Institute’s Black Principals Network, once Black educators become working school leaders, it’s critical they get the support they need to be successful. The group aims to give school leaders the resources to prioritize their personal well-being and grow professionally while building a community with other school leaders across the country via a virtual platform. Both the pandemic and the political climate have taken their toll on black administrators, said TaraShaun Cain, executive director of the Black Principals Network, which launched last year.
“Black leaders need mental health support,” Cain said. “They need support to cope with the trauma they are experiencing. People have lost employees to COVID or family members to COVID. No one talks to you about running your school through this.”
In addition to addressing the mental health needs of school leaders, the network will include affinity groups that school leaders can consult to resolve problems. Too often, school leaders feel alone, Cain said, and the isolation can feel more intense for black administrators because they’re a minority of school leaders nationwide.
“No one really focuses on the leaders,” Cain said. “And unless we focus on the leaders, particularly Black leaders, who experience stress at a higher rate and at a higher level than other leaders, based on the communities they serve, we will continue to see the great resignation of leaders, because they do not have the resources or support needed to continue this hard work. “
Desravines said surveys of educators suggest there could be an exodus of school administrators over the next few years. But his organization wants to counteract that by developing more black principals and, similar to the Black Principals Network, connecting principals with program graduates who share their educational philosophy.
For Littlejohn, this philosophy is simple.
“Representation is really important,” she said. “But I also want to make sure that as part of my school, I prepare the children I am blessed with for this. I want them to be able to look back on their elementary school experience and say, ‘You know what, I was prepared. You finished me. They gave me experiences.’”