How White Principals Navigate Predominantly Non-White Urban Schools

Michael-Beyer-260x260Recent research from the Center for Urban Education Leadership examined standardized test achievement for Illinois students under No Child Left Behind. The results are stark: although scores are improving for Black and Latino students, those populations still lag behind White students.

The root causes of this are varied and deep and certainly not explained by race, but the Center’s Jason Swanson, PhD, research specialist, argues in new research that urban principals are limited in designing strategies to address educational gaps when these groups are not even identified by race.

His research, “White Principals Attempting to Lead Race-Conscious School Improvement: A Distributive Perspective,” is set to be published in the journal Urban Education. The article argues sidestepping the issue of race restricts principals’ ability to address systemic inequities.

“It’s a really uncomfortable conversation for a lot of people,” Swanson said. “There are a lot of people who want to help all students, so they say I don’t see race, there’s only one race, the human race. This turns a blind eye to the racial world we live in, a world that Black and Latino Americans experience all the time.”

The paper explores the efforts of two principals attempting to create critical conversations and curricular changes to address educational gaps between racial groups. Both principals faced resistance to their efforts: in one case, a group of White teachers ‘hijacked’ a meeting at which these issues were to be discussed; in a second case, a principal only addressed issues of race obliquely because the school district had been sued over racial disparities in school outcomes and teachers were weary of heavy-handed policies on race.

These situations are an illustration of the disparities in the makeup of teaching and student bodies in Illinois. In the district studied, approximately 80-85 percent of teachers are White while 60 percent of students are non-White. Just 15 years ago, 80 percent of those students were White and only 20 percent were low-income. In Chicago, however, there is a greater disparity. While more than half of the teachers are White, over 90% of the student body identifies as a student of color.

“You have teachers who are teaching just as they were 15 years ago wondering what the heck is going on here, why aren’t these kids learning?” Swanson said. “So we have to ask, to what extent are districts deliberately creating spaces where principals and teachers can explore issues like culturally responsive pedagogy and issues of social justice to accommodate this rapidly changing demographic?”

Both principals in the study launched strategies to exercise whatever political capital they possessed. One principal realized he might not be the most qualified candidate to bring up issues of race, so he built capacity in teacher leaders to take a more active role in facilitating conversations. He also formed a social action committee, providing space for students to name the injustices they saw in their school. Teachers took these grievances back to the whole staff body for conversation.

One outgrowth of the committee was an event called “Fourth Monday Meetings,” in which staff members participated on one of four committees focused on areas of social justice highlighted by the student body.

The second principal attempted to frame issues of race openly at staff development meetings, specifically naming racial injustices and gross disparities between White students and Black, Latino and English language learner students.

The schools also focused on ways in which equity and diversity were building a sense of community. Prior to the social action committee, within the hallways, the majority of posters across the school featured mostly famous White people. And within the classrooms, most of the texts and curriculum only focused on the successes of White people. Swanson says when students of color don’t see themselves reflected in curriculum and the school environment they tend to check out.

“To solve systemic problems, you have to have systemic solutions,” Swanson said. “This is just a very first step in trying to name the problem. Principal preparation programs often treat issues of race so lightly that novice leaders don’t have models or tools to handle these inevitable situations.”

By Rob Schroeder
rschroe9@uic.edu