Being Black in Education: Where is the system going wrong?

Evidence demonstrates Black leaders can strengthen achievement and culture — if they get the chance.
Former James Whitfield embraces a student during a graduation ceremony at Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas.
Former principal James Whitfield embraces a student during a graduation ceremony at his Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas.
Colleyville Heritage High School

I. The Mirror Effect

For years, James Whitfield felt invisible. He was a scrawny, Black boy who lived in west Texas, wore oversized hand-me-downs, and walked through school hallways with his head down. If you asked him, he’d sum up his existence as “average.”

“I didn’t see anybody that looked like me that was making a positive difference in people’s lives,” recalls Whitfield, now a longtime educator. “I had nobody that I could look to and go, ‘OK, here’s somebody that looks like me. They’re doing good things, and therefore I can aspire to that.’”

That changed with a handshake from football coach Kevin Carmona — a Black man. “‘He said, ‘Son, give me some grip,’” Whitfield remembers. “That was the first day I felt like somebody saw me.” From that moment on, Whitfield stood a bit taller.

He was nearly in high school.

When students ‘see’ themselves

The footprint of educators of color — and more specifically Black educators — in Black students' lives and academic careers is well-documented.

Black students are significantly less likely to be suspended or expelled when racially matched with their teachers, according to a decade of data from New York City Public Schools analyzed by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

James Whitfield holding a basketball as a boy in the 1990s.
James Whitfield as a boy in the 1990s around the time he met coach Kevin Carmona.
James Whitfield

Having just one Black teacher during elementary school can make a Black student 13% more likely to enroll in college, and having two Black teachers bumps that likelihood up to 32%, according to a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Multiple studies have also shown, overall, having Black teachers improves Black students’ scores in math and reading.

Behind the recruitment and retention of Black teachers is a village of Black administrators and superintendents: A working paper from the Annenberg Institute found Black principals increase the likelihood a newly hired teacher is Black and decrease the likelihood of Black teacher turnover.

“Black principals are leading differently,” said Jason Grissom, a Vanderbilt University researcher who led the study. “They're creating different environments for Black teachers that in turn impacts their work experiences and creates a school that they are more attached to, and that's what creates the turnover difference.”

Schools with a Black principal also have a greater number of Black students in gifted programs, according to Grissom and co-author Brendan Bartanen.

And qualitative studies dating back to the 1980s from the University of Massachusetts Amherst show Black superintendents significantly improve achievement for students of color.

Excerpts from a study of Paterson Public Schools on torn yellowed paper.
A qualitative study from the University of Massachusetts Amherst of Paterson Public Schools found a Black superintendent significantly improved the academic experience of students' of color.
Julia Himmel/K-12 Dive

"Many times when we have leaders of color, they have different expectations of students of color,” said Grissom. “They don't automatically assume that students of color have limited capacity."

But more than 30 years later, Whitfield's story still resembles so many others’ — Black students often don’t see themselves mirrored in classroom, school and district leadership. Despite a student population that is becoming increasingly diverse, the education workforce has not kept pace.

Black representation in the education workforce stalls

Over the course of nearly two decades, the percentage of teachers who are Black actually declined by 1 percentage point, from 8% to 7%, according to data collected between 1999 and 2018 by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Leadership in the field is just as grim: Aside from gradual shifts in demographics, the nation’s superintendents still remain overwhelmingly White and male. Superintendents of color have increased at a relatively slow pace over the past two decades, with 8.6% of respondents identifying as superintendents of color in 2020, compared to 6% in 2010 and 5% in 2000, according to a periodic survey conducted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Over the course of a decade, not much progress has been made in the principalship, either. According to federal reports, in 2007-08, the principal workforce was 81% non-Hispanic White and 11% non-Hispanic Black. In the most recent 2017-18 report, the percentage of non-Hispanic White educators decreased to 78%, but Black principals stayed steady at 11%.

Meanwhile, projections for 2026 made prior to the coronavirus pandemic show the student body diversifying and students of color graduating at higher rates. However, the resulting disruptions could have thrown a wrench into those trajectories, especially for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, making the potential turnover of teachers, principals and superintendents of color especially concerning.

‘We live in these communities’

When a student served by Project Success, a college prep program chaired by David Brewer III, recently approached the former Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent and his team of college counselors, complaining of a splitting headache, she had only one option in mind: Drop out of college.

Instead, Brewer and his colleagues, who provide academic and wraparound support to students in high school and through college, sent her for medical attention. “The dentist said, ‘If you hadn't gotten her to me within three months, she would have had a horrible infection,’” Brewer said.

With her headache remedied, the student returned to college and eventually graduated. “This isn’t an academic issue. This is a socioeconomic issue,” Brewer said.

Black leaders are often funneled into disciplinary roles by their White colleagues and bosses. Yet Black leaders’ experiences prepare and in many cases inspire them to become effective school counselors, curriculum experts and administrators — and to take on other education leadership roles.

“Because we live in these communities,” Brewer said, “we go to church with Title I kids, we go to church with Title I families. We understand these dynamics.”

Brewer, a retired vice admiral of the U.S. Navy, entered LAUSD in the early 2000s as an outsider. With no background in K-12 education, he was framed by the Los Angeles Times as “a fresh thinker, unwedded to the bureaucracy, unafraid to make bold, even unorthodox moves.”

In addition to his experience as vice chief of naval education and training and an otherwise unconventional resume, Brewer had one more thing going for him: He is Black, making him one of the three Black superintendents to lead LAUSD in recent history.

David Brewer during his time in the U.S. Navy attends the official launch of the USS MASON.
David Brewer, a former vice admiral for the U.S. Navy, is pictured at the official launch USS MASON (DDG-87). Brewer, standing eighth from the right, would go on to be selected as the second Black superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, an outsider who was selected to shake up a stagnant school system.
The U.S. National Archives

A report commissioned early in Brewer’s superintendency revealed he had inherited fractures within the district. A 2006 supporting technical report by RAND Corporation described snail-paced improvements in academic performance and graduation rates, community disenfranchisement and poverty, and periodic but acute campus violence.

Brewer’s plan of action was multidimensional: Address dropout rates with wraparound services, put in place after-school programs in partnership with local YMCAs to curb gang recruitment and violence, ride the Obama wave to pass billions in bonds and fix dilapidated schools, bring preschool to low-income neighborhoods to close the graduation gap, and provide strong career and technical education inspired by Booker T. Washington’s belief in vocational training.

Budget and expenditure reports from before, during and after Brewer’s term show regular and special spending for after-school programs — which usually have an academic component — and child development programs increased significantly during his term between 2006 and 2008.

In the years leading up to Brewer’s superintendency, dollars invested in after-school programs steadily increased from $23.3 million in 2002-03 school year, to $40.8 million during the 2003-04 school year, and then $43.3 million in 2005-06, just before the board voted him in to lead the district in October 2006. That number jumped to $89.8 million in 2006-07 and then to $141.6 million for the 2007-08 school year, during Brewer’s first full school year as superintendent.

Spending from the district’s Child Development Fund, which provides preschool, all-day and after-school programs, followed a similar trend. Between 2002 and 2006, expenses for the program increased incrementally from $97.2 million to $109.5 million. In 2006-07, the amount increased to $118.9 million and once more to $126.3 million the following year.

Critics at the time, including some from his own school board, considered Brewer’s changes underwhelming for the revolutionary he was hired to be.

“Instead, Brewer’s cheerleading persona, paired with his lack of action, has spawned embittered employees who call him ‘Admiral’ to his face in a nod to tradition, but who say it mockingly behind his back,” LA Weekly reported, capturing the tension and pressure on Brewer’s shoulders. “One-quarter of his four-year contract has vanished with no concrete accomplishments and no apparent strategy for improving student achievement or lackluster teaching.”

Hindsight tells a different story. According to local reports released a year after his forced departure, Brewer’s term led to a 17% decline in dropouts, now considered among the largest improvements in the state of California. Test scores were also on an upswing.

However, these improvements were not publicized until after his removal from the district.

So, if you unleash us — let us do what we know we need to do — then we can get kids educated.

David Brewer III, former superintendent of LAUSD

An analysis conducted by K-12 Dive of Academic Performance Index scores from the California Department of Education also shows a positive impact on students of color and low-income students.

Since the 2000s, the number of schools with qualifying numbers of students of color and low-income students that met their API goal were on an overall decline with periodic but brief increases in 2002-03 and 2004-05. In the years leading up to Brewer’s first term, the number of schools meeting their goal dipped once more.

During Brewer’s tenure, average scores for schools with qualifying numbers of low-income and Hispanic students significantly increased. Average scores for schools with qualifying numbers of African American students also increased.

Of the schools that had a significant number of low-income and Hispanic students, a greater number met their API goal during Brewer’s term than in the years leading up to his tenure

% of schools with a significant population of the subgroup where students met the API goal for that group

A separate comparison of student scores from 2005, right before Brewer’s term, to 2008, the end of his superintendency, also shows a positive impact on African American students. In 2005, African American students averaged in the lower API range. In 2008, a greater percentage of African American students averaged in the higher range of scores. In other words, by the end of Brewer’s term, there were heavy decreases in low API scores and heavy increases in high API scores for African American students.

Average API scores for the African American subgroup were in the higher range by the end of Brewer's term when compared to scores from 2005

% difference in average African American subgroup scores between 2005 and 2008

A histogram showing percent change in average API scores from 2005 to 2008 where bars below 690 show a decrease, and bars above 690 show an increase. Thus, the chart shows a decrease in lower scores and increase in higher scores from 2005 to 2008. This data was provided by the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Chart: Annie Fu/K-12 Dive • Source: California Department of Education (CDE)

Over a decade later, Brewer believes the programs he put in place also resulted in an employment boom as a direct result of the bonds used for updating school infrastructure, one of the largest graduating high school classes during that time period, and a reduction in crime in neighborhoods with some of the largest gang populations.

“So, if you unleash us — let us do what we know we need to do — then we can get kids educated,” Brewer said of Black educators.

‘Like I did as a kid’

It is often Black principals and superintendents who are tasked with the arduous — and sometimes isolating — work of dismantling the barriers founded in racism and constructed over hundreds of years that stand between students of color and positive outcomes.

Chipping away at those hurdles are some of the primary initiatives Black leaders undertake today: district policy audits and overhauls, changes to longstanding and implicitly biased disciplinary practices, diversification and retention of teachers, increased access to AP courses for minority students, and curriculum revamps to reflect Black history and experiences.

My school community took care of me. They met my needs.

Baron Davis, superintendent of Richland School District Two in South Carolina

Soon after Baron Davis became a school administrator, he had what he calls his “Exodus moment.” His school was expelling and suspending students of color at disproportionately high rates.

“Teaching discipline is a mindset,” he realized, “The root word of ‘discipline’ is ‘disciple’ — it’s supposed to be teaching, mentoring and nurturing you.”

Removing students from their educational experience was the opposite.

Shifting to this mindset meant shedding systematic disciplinary practices Davis had seen and internalized over the course of his own education career, but which ran perpendicular to what he experienced as a student growing up in housing projects and attending a majority Black and low-income school district.

“My school community took care of me,” Davis recalled. “They met my needs.”

Black educators often provide Black students with a sense of belonging and mentorship, going beyond their job descriptions to connect with students and families.

But as an educator, Davis briefly abandoned that positive culture for punitive discipline in the name of being a traditional educator. “I’m supposed to be hard like this. I’m supposed to develop a shell,” he thought as he watched students be expelled or suspended from school early in his career.

It wasn’t until later that Davis, now the first Black superintendent of Richland County School District Two in suburban Columbia, South Carolina, considered an alternative. In 2015, Davis participated in a district-wide taskforce reevaluating the district’s disciplinary policies, including establishing positive behavioral supports for at-risk students and providing alternatives to exclusionary discipline.

He realized, “The students that I was suspending looked and acted just like I did as a kid.”

James Whitfield as the principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas wearing ceremonious clothing for his students' high school graduation.
James Whitfield (left) was ascending in his principalship career at Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District until community members said he was teaching "critical race theory," objected to personal photos of Whitfield with his wife, and took issue with a letter he wrote in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
Colleyville Heritage High School

II. Set Up for Failure?

When David Brewer III was drafted to lead the second-largest district in the United States, it came as a bit of a surprise — he was a vice admiral for the U.S. Navy and hadn’t risen through the ranks of a K-12 school system as traditional superintendents do. Nor had he even applied for the coveted post.

But following a nationwide survey for potential superintendent recommendations and three interviews, Brewer was unanimously voted into the seat by the Los Angeles Board of Education. While his career path was unorthodox, that same quality made him an attractive catch: Brewer was a maverick whose fresh eye promised to shake up a stagnant education system.

Still, when the board handed the district’s reins to Brewer, it came with a caveat from two of his Black mentors who, unlike him, had served as superintendents: Brewer would be sailing through rough waters.

“One of the things that they told me, point blank, is that you will make progress — because you're smart, you're a good guy,” Brewer recalled. “And the minute that you start to make a certain amount of progress, they're going to get rid of you.”

Two years into his term, Brewer’s strategy to revive the district seemed to be working. Test scores were on the rise, the dropout rate had decreased by a whopping 17%, and a mayor-backed and unprecedented $7 billion bond was providing a boom in school construction and infrastructure improvements.

But before he could complete his contract, Brewer was ousted.

Politics in play

In 2006, Los Angeles was a political battlefield.

A little more than a year after his election as mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa pushed to take over LAUSD, which would have effectively ended the school board’s control.

Instead, on Sept. 18 of that year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed Assembly Bill 1381. While not a complete state takeover, the bill gave the mayor say over LAUSD’s budget, principal hiring and firing decisions, and assignment of local district superintendents. A little over three months later, and as a result of the board’s challenge to the legislation, the superior and appellate courts ruled the partial takeover unconstitutional.

It was in the midst of this power grab, and on the heels of Villaraigosa’s defeat, that David Brewer entered the district.

“What I discovered is that the bane of public education is politics,” he said, looking back years later. “When you are a Black superintendent, the politics get worse. And that's what was happening with me.”

In addition to a political minefield, Brewer inherited a broken payroll system, which he spent six months of his two-year tenure trying to tame. Critics said he was not able to juggle multiple balls at once.

By that time, another round of board elections had rolled around, and several of Villaraigosa’s allies won seats. Mónica García, who was elected LAUSD board president, had initially organized to remove Brewer while the only Black member of the board at the time, Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte, was out of town.

LAUSD Board Member Monica Garcia stands with students.
LAUSD Board Member Monica Garcia (left) pushed for the removal of David Brewer when he was superintendent of the district despite test scores rising and dropout rates declining.
Rich Polk/Getty Images

“The futile attempt to have me do an immediate turnaround upon my arrival here was a disingenuous and unconscionable cover-up to exclude me from this strategically and externally motivated plan,” LaMotte said at the time, per local reports. The meeting was postponed until after Lamotte returned.

Meanwhile, Brewer recalled, “Mónica García called me, and she said, ‘We're going to move in another direction … We’re willing to give you more money to leave.’”

Brewer, who said he never received an explanation for the decision, rejected an increased severance pay. “I knew what that headline would look like,” Brewer said in retrospect. “I was politically savvy enough by that time to know that that was not a good move.”

Bernard Parks, a Black city councilman, at the time described to newspapers his conversations with García as "bizarre."

"She said, 'It's an exempt position, so we don't have to have cause,'" Parks told The Los Angeles Times in 2008, the year Brewer was voted out as superintendent. "I said, 'Is there a reason?' And she said, 'If you're asking me for a reason, it's that he's not moving fast enough.' "

Garcia declined to comment despite K-12 Dive’s attempts to contact her.

Brewer’s experience, while augmented by pre-existing city and school district politics, speaks to a larger challenge facing many Black superintendents in education: Nebulous or nonexistent standards, making fair and equitable performance expectations and evaluations nearly impossible.

Timeline of events surrounding Brewer's tenure

  • May 2005

    Antonio Villaraigosa, promising school reform, is elected as the mayor of Los Angeles

  • September 2006

    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signs AB 1381 into law, which would give Mayor Villaraigosa control over LAUSD

  • October 2006

    LAUSD school board votes unanimously to begin contract negotiations with David Brewer III

  • December 2006

    Judge declares AB 1381 unconstitutional, which Mayor Villaraigosa immediately appeals

  • January 2007

    AB 1381 would have taken effect on the first day of 2007

  • April 2007

    The mayor’s appeal is thrown out, rendering AB 1381 moot. Local papers suggest his next move will be to swing the school board his way

  • March-May 2007

    School board seats are on the ticket in primaries and general elections and at least 4 allies of the mayor win seats on a seven-member school board

  • December 2008

    The new LAUSD Board of Education votes to oust Brewer

According to a 2021 survey conducted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, Black superintendents are least likely to have a clause specifying processes, measures and indicators to be used for formal performance evaluations. The study included a sample size of 1,348 White superintendents and only 77 Black superintendents.

Anecdotal evidence supports this finding.

Black superintendents are less likely to have specific indicators included in their performance evaluations

% of superintendents surveyed who say their employment contract specifies processes, measures, and indicators to be used in their formal performance evaluations

Under the microscope

In Texas, James Whitfield was climbing the principalship ladder — he had been promoted twice within two years when he landed a job in 2020 as the first Black high school principal for Colleyville Heritage High School in Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District.

Whitfield felt good. The organization and community he worked for, he thought, recognized his work and embraced his leadership.

However, about a year later, Whitfield was placed on leave, came to the brink of an unlawful termination lawsuit, and eventually severed ties with the district that had steadily promoted him until the school board voted unanimously to not renew his contract.

A group of parents pose outside a building following a school board meeting.
Groups of parents pushing against "critical race theory" are becoming more prominent. Here, a parent group in Texas seeking to network with GCISD Parents for Strong Schools gather after a school board meeting.
Cristina Ochoa

For weeks after being placed on leave in late August, Whitfield said he was given no explanation for his sudden ousting from the principalship.

When the board finally provided a public explanation in September, the laundry list of reasons included insubordination, dividing large segments of the community and less-than-satisfactory evaluations.

This was the first time Whitfield heard of such complaints against his leadership.

“The large majority of what they listed off in their grievances to me was not included in any current performance evaluation,” Whitfield said.

Even large parts of the community seemed to disagree with the district's decision. A recording of the school board meeting features erupting laughter and disgruntled community members. “Y’all are full of s---,” one man yelled several times.

Others felt differently. Months earlier during a July 26 board of trustees meeting, former school board candidate Stetson Clark accused Whitfield of teaching “critical race theory.”

“How about you fire him?” an audience member yelled.

The theory, which is not commonly taught until postsecondary education, is an academic concept that America has a history of institutionalized racism and persistent racial inequality.

In a a 2021 survey of 1,136 educators from the Association of American Educators, a national nonpartisan professional educator organization, 96% of respondents said they were not being directed to teach the concept.

Whitfield denies teaching the theory. He explained that his efforts had included diversity and inclusion initiatives that he thought, until the July meeting, were widely accepted. His critics, however, “packaged it as CRT,” he said.

A Facebook post on GCISD Parents for Strong Schools shows opposition to James Whitfield, he former principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas.
A Facebook group of parents who rallied for the removal of James Whitfield, the former principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas, accuse Whitfield of "race baiting" and the "destroying of children and communities."
GCISD Parents for Strong Schools

Included in those initiatives was a diversity advisory council, a student-led group that celebrated different heritages each month, invited guest authors to speak with students, held a Holocaust Remembrance Vigil, and hosted a day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Prior to the last set of school board elections, there was no pushback, as far as I could tell, on anything diversity, equity and inclusion,” Whitfield said.

Clark, who Whitfield believes sparked the push from conservative parents and community members that led to his removal, also cited a letter the then-principal had shared with his community nearly a year earlier following the murder of George Floyd.

A Facebook group of conservative parents rallied around removing professionally shot anniversary photos of Whitfield and his wife on a beach, which he had shared on his personal Facebook page and the district later asked him to remove.

The group, “GCISD Parents for Strong Schools,” also pushed to ban library books including “Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development” and “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.”

The final major rallying point used to oust Whitfield was his role in a professional learning presentation curated and given by a White colleague in fall 2019 called “Breaking the Barriers.”

“They still attach it to me, as if I’m the creator of the presentation,” said Whitfield, who shared a story about his White grandfather during part of the professional learning session approved by the district.

As the only Black educator partaking in the presentation, he became a target.

Becoming the bullseye

Over 600 miles away in Eureka, Missouri, a similar story was unraveling for Terry Harris and Brittany Hogan, the only two high-profile Black leaders who, along with their White colleagues, were organizing read-aloud events for elementary school students in the majority-White Rockwood School District.

Books included stories about Ronald McNair, a Black NASA astronaut and physicist who as a child was reported to the police for checking out a library book, and others who highlight Black experiences in America.

A few months before the program’s launch, Harris, the district’s executive director of student services, and Hogan, then the director of educational equity and diversity, began getting calls and messages from parents denouncing the reading materials as immoral and harmful. Others who had a hand in spearheading the reading program, including a social studies coordinator and librarian who were both White, received little to no blowback.

By the time the program officially launched, Hogan no longer wanted to be the public face of the program she had a hand in creating.

Sometimes during my days in Rockwood, the only reflection I would see of someone else who looked like me would be a student. Sometimes, I did not see another adult of color the entire week.

Brittany Hogan, former director of educational equity and diversity for Rockwood School District

“I am feeling the blowback of White rage, and I will still have to continue to be Black, I will still have to continue to do this job,” Hogan told her supervisors at the time. “And I feel like my mental health and my physical safety are beginning to be put in jeopardy.”

Hogan and a slew of other Black principals, assistant principals and district-level leaders across the nation describe being targeted and say sometimes even average day-to-day work was an isolating experience.

“Sometimes during my days in Rockwood, the only reflection I would see of someone else who looked like me would be a student,” Hogan said. “Sometimes, I did not see another adult of color the entire week.”

According to The Bailey Report, a qualitative study of African American teachers and administrators’ experiences in Colorado’s Denver Public Schools, feelings of isolation and marginalization are among top negative themes impacting these administrators. When asked if they would recommend working at the district to a colleague, over half (59%) said no.

”It’s not worth the toll it takes on a person,” one respondent explained. “There’s no support, too much stress.”

Many cited being targeted or singled out by the community, with wavering or absent district support.

Terry Harris stands on the left and Brittany Hogan, who is holding a balloon, stands on the right.
Terry Harris (left) and Brittany Hogan (right) believe they were both targeted by community members because of their race and diversity initiatives in the district.
Rockwood School District
Brittany Hogan is embraced by students.
Brittany Hogan left Rockwood School District following targeted attacks from community members. "Sometimes during my days in Rockwood, the only reflection I would see of someone else who looked like me would be a student," Hogan said.
Rockwood School District

The result is a slow and steady build of mental exhaustion for Black leaders. Personal attacks from community members and fear for physical and mental safety often hinder and detract from diversity and inclusion efforts or other work Black leaders are hired to undertake.

“It's almost like being at home and having your own family turn their back on you,” Harris said.

Falling on deaf ears

Across the board, Black administrators and superintendents have, in part, credited their successes or failures to district leadership or school boards: A supportive district and school board can help a Black leader succeed, while an absent one can hinder progress and deter current and prospective employees of color from the district.

However, in many cases, the latter is true. While districts and boards are often encouraging behind closed doors, authentic and swift action to publicly support Black leaders can be largely missing.

“You don't necessarily have to go give somebody a pat on the back and go, ‘Hey, you're here. And you can do this,’” Whitfield explained. “Sometimes, it's your level of inaction that is allowing these types of actions to take place.”

While Whitfield said he received a slurry of positive text messages from board members when targeted by the community, the board didn’t ultimately support him publicly.

In Hogan and Harris’ case, both expressed the need for their district to work faster and more deeply to support their mental and physical well-being. For Hogan, who resigned from her position and now works in the nonprofit sector, support from the district came in the form of a security vehicle parked outside her house a month after she initially expressed concern for her physical safety.

“I think that districts need to stand behind the people that they hire to do these jobs,” Hogan said.

Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, waves goodbye to students walking out in a single file line.
Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools, is leading educational equity efforts in his school district.
​​Alexandria City Public Schools

III. The Catch-22

Gregory Hutchings still remembers the welcome he received in Shaker Heights, Ohio, during his first year as superintendent there — not because of its warmth, but because of what he considered its oddity.

He was excited to attend an alumni luncheon, where he expected the fundraiser to praise the school districts’ accomplishments or needs, as fundraisers often do. But when the event began, Hutchings noticed copies of his resume laid out on plates in place of napkins. When the host approached the podium, he felt things got even more bizarre: Nearly Hutchings’ entire resume was recited in place of a traditional fundraising speech.

“And I was thinking, what would have happened if I were not Black?” he still wonders years later.

Hutchings, now superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia, experienced at the jump start of his superintendent career what many Black superintendents and administrators encounter numerous times over their own: microaggressive or overtly racist behaviors as a knee-jerk reaction to seeing an educated Black person in a place of power.

Nearly a decade later, despite his success at the highest levels of educational leadership, Hutchings still grapples with challenges to his position as superintendent. At first, many assume he’s a teacher or principal. Others send him emails questioning whether he’s fit to make decisions.

“That gets draining over time,” Hutchings said, “but I still get up and come back.”

However, the worry is that many others won’t.

Dropping the recruitment ball

Black men and women are already less likely than their White counterparts to enter the superintendency despite similar levels of qualifications. White men are most likely to attain the position, followed by men of color, White women, and, lastly, women of color, according to a study of all Texas public school educators who obtained their first superintendent certificate between the 2000-01 and 2014-15 school years.

At the principal level, comparable disparities exist. According to a study of prospective Texas principals using data from 1993 to 2013, Black and Latino educators from principal preparation programs had greater odds than their White peers to be hired as an assistant principal, but lower odds to be named a principal.

White certificate holders are more likely to become superintendents than Black certificate holders in the years immediately following certification

These scores represent the likelihood of a certified educator becoming a superintendent within 1-10 years based on factors such as age, race, years of experience, district size and more

A negligible number of Black gatekeepers in hiring is considered a ramification of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision to integrate schools. On the road to attempted integration, highly qualified Black educators were driven out of the profession in droves because of backlash to the decision and troubled integration efforts.

Historians and researchers estimate 38,000 Black teachers lost their jobs in the years following Brown across 21 Southern or bordering states, with impacts of integration policies lasting into the 1970s and laying the groundwork for today’s lack of diversity in the education workforce.

“It's not an accident that we don't have Black educators in education,” said James Whitfield, the former principal of Colleyville Heritage High School in Texas. “It was done very systematically.”

As a result, Black children lost — and continue to lose today — role models and advocates with a unique understanding of their communities and culture.

Today, qualified Black educators continue to feel overlooked for leadership positions and robbed of the opportunity to progress in the field. In many cases, Black people say they are hired in the central office to fill diversity and inclusion positions or are given disciplinarian roles within school buildings.

Black superintendents have among the lowest median incomes

Superintendent base salary by racial group

During her time as assistant principal in Denver Public Schools, Whitney Weathers came across what she considered a traumatizing assignment required districtwide for high school juniors not considered college-ready to pass in order to graduate. Students who were college-ready at the time were majority White, she said, while students in her building who had to pass the assignment were majority students of color.

The prompt asked students to draw on chapter 4 of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, which details the brutalization and murder of slaves, to argue about how laws and justice were defined, and then provide a counterargument.

"The White man had the right to shoot the [Black] man because he was his slave,” one student wrote in response.

When Weathers brought this situation to the district’s curriculum department, she said they were unaware of its implications. The team presiding over secondary English curriculum and assessments at the time, she said, was all White.

“We have been microaggressed and an email will not suffice as an apology,” Weathers wrote in a letter to the district leaders. “Our history is not just slavery. In the same narrative, Douglas talks of redemption, literacy, sacrifice, and overcoming: none of this was the focus of this prompt.” Weathers asked for the district to “recruit teachers of color in positions of academic power.”

Whitney Weathers, former principal for Denver Public Schools, sits behind her laptop and speaks.
Whitney Weathers, a former assistant principal for Denver Public Schools, flagged for her district a problematic prompt given to juniors across the district, including the majority Black and brown students in her school building.
​​Whitney Weathers

Later, when a position in the district opened for a literacy director, Weathers, who has a degree and two additional licenses and certifications in English, wasn’t even made aware of the opportunity.

“You're dropping the ball here, because you've got leaders of color who don't want to be principals,” said Weathers, “but who could go into these departments and do what needs to be done.”

Black educators’ lived experience could “create more conversation around what curriculum needs to look like,” she added. Weathers eventually left her position as assistant principal and now works at a nonprofit.

Where are the Black educators? Everywhere.

The problem is a Catch-22: A lack of diversity on hiring teams and in district leadership makes it less likely districts will hire diverse candidates.

Is your organization an organization that Black people want to work in? That’s the question.

Gregory Hutchings, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia

According to a study conducted by Terrell Melvin Hill at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, minority candidates are twice as likely to say prejudice, discrimination and a lack of mentors impede their progress to the superintendency compared to their White counterparts.

Another paper, written by doctoral student Albert Hodge at the University of Michigan in 2017, concluded, “Without having at least some understanding of the ordinariness of racism, White privilege, and their own implicit biases, school boards will not, and cannot compare candidates equitably.”

Trends also became clear after speaking with over a dozen education professionals and researchers from various parts of the nation, diving into studies dating as far back as the 1980s, and tracking district programs and shifts overtime.

In many places, the illusion of progress hinders real change. Districts and schools hire diversity and inclusion leaders — who often have high standards to meet and a community hostile to their job description — and hire teachers of color, while a climate of racist or microaggressive behaviors persists. The result is battle fatigue among existing Black educators, high turnover rates and districts stopping short of authentic change.

“​I hate when I hear things like, ‘We can't find Black educators,’” Hutchings said. “No, you can find black educators. Is your organization an organization that Black people want to work in? That’s the question.”

Districts also tend to phase in and out of equity work, changing with the seasons of school boards, their priorities and spending.

“Education has become so politicized,” said Sharon Bailey, who wrote the report detailing educators’ experiences in Denver Public Schools and is a former school board member of the district. “It mucks up the process and the practice of trying to educate all students.”

When Denver Public Schools was just emerging from court-ordered busing in 1995, Bailey knew there was still more work to be done. “I was kicking and screaming, because I knew we still had so much inequity in the district,” she said.

An excerpt from a resolution drafted by Sharon Bailey on yellowed, torn paper.
Sharon Bailey, who wrote The Bailey Report, drafted a resolution as the former board member for Denver Public Schools in the 1990s. The challenges facing students and educators of color outlined in the document can still be applied today.
Julia Himmel/K-12 Dive

At the time, she drafted a resolution detailing challenges to be addressed: teacher and leader hiring and retention practices, school disciplinary practices and curriculum changes, among others.

Nearly three decades later, the pain points she listed still apply in many areas of the country. If anything, Bailey fears the nation is regressing.

“This pushback over telling the truth about history … and to do anything related to diversity, or equity being challenged, could really, really push us back decades in terms of really trying to make progress for all kids,” Bailey said. “It’s going to continue to be a challenge to really get folks to understand our common humanity and the fact that all of us deserve some degree of dignity — all our students, all our educators and leaders.”