Researchers analyzed eight years of demographic, career history and job tenure data for hundreds of CPS principals. The team, which included staff from the research institution NORC and the Consortium on School Research at the University of Chicago and from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, interviewed 20 early-career school principals during the pandemic to learn about the skills, experiences and support these leaders wish they had before taking the position.
The academics found that city principals are more diverse than their counterparts nationally and in other urban areas, and that new principals were more likely to be Black than veteran principals. Three of every four Black and white CPS students have a principal of the same race and ethnicity. And 69% of CPS principals are women, compared to 54% nationwide.
But the data show Latinos are underrepresented in leadership roles in a district where nearly half of all students are Latino. Only 17% of principals in the 2019-2020 school year were Latino. Some 44% were Black and 35% were white. Among students, 47% were Latino, 34% were Black and 13% were white.
“Having a same-race principal improves student outcomes,” said Molly Gordon, a senior research scientist at NORC. “So we were interested in understanding how the demographic makeup of the principalship in Chicago has changed over time.”
Researchers also found that about half of newly hired elementary school principals were likely to stay on the job after five years, compared to 32% of high school principals. Assistant principals who get promoted are more likely to stay in schools longer than other newly hired leaders.
WBEZ education reporter Nereida Moreno sat down with Gordon to discuss the new research. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from their conversation.
What made you want to look closely at Chicago principals and how they prepared for the job?
We’ve learned from probably decades of research that leadership matters. There have been multiple studies showing the link between leadership and student performance outcomes. And so we started getting interested in understanding the school leadership pipeline. And there are a lot of efforts both nationally and locally in Chicago to help support strengthening of a leadership pipeline.
You found that Chicago principals are relatively diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. Why did you look at that issue?
There’s a lot of evidence in the research showing there’s kind of a mismatch between student race/ethnicity and principal race/ethnicity. So we found in the literature that more recent evidence finds that having a same-race principal improves student outcomes and increases the percentage of same-race teachers in the school. And so we were interested in understanding how the demographic makeup of the principalship in Chicago has changed over time. Our findings show that the proportion of Black principals has increased. And in fact, we show that Chicago Public Schools has a more diverse principal workforce than other urban areas and nationally.
We know that nearly 50% of all CPS students are Latino and yet Latinos continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles. How does that impact students and the school community overall?
We did find that Latinx principals are underrepresented in the proportion of CPS principals. And similar to what I said before, because the race/ethnicity of the
principal matters in terms of student outcomes, and as well as in helping to recruit Latinx teachers into the workforce … We find that is an area of improvement for CPS and an area that should garner more attention.
You also asked principals what it takes to be a successful school leader. What did they have to say about that?
One thing that was really interesting to us is that most principals talked about the importance of both inter- and intrapersonal skills. So in other words, both kind of people or social skills, but also intrapersonal skills, such as being able to reflect, taking and learning from criticism, adapting, being patient, perseverance — all of those things matter for being a strong principal. They also said it was really important to be able to recruit and hire the right people. So one principal mentioned getting the right people on the bus and then being able to develop them.
What comes next?
What we released is actually part of a larger study that we’re conducting on many different aspects of the school leadership pipeline. Our initial study was looking at the background experiences of principals and their critical experiences coming into the role. We also want to explore different application patterns of principals, trying to understand why principals apply to certain positions, whether they apply to certain positions and not apply to others, and then understanding the principal hiring process and the role that plays in helping get strong leaders into the highest needs schools.