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May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Research Link / Pathways to the Principalship

Who are our principals? In 1993–94, a total of 79,618 principals worked in public schools across the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 1995). Of that total, 52,114 were men and 27,505 were women. Almost 85 percent were white, about 10 percent were African American, and only 4 percent were Hispanic. Additionally, 53,688 principals served in elementary schools, 23,187 worked in secondary schools, and 2,743 were assigned to combined schools. On average, each had been a principal for about 8.5 years.
The most common feature that principals share is their classroom experience. Fiore and Curtin (1997) found that nearly every principal (99 percent) had been a classroom teacher before becoming a principal. What leads someone from the classroom to the office of the principal? And what causes the disparities, particularly between the numbers of male and female principals?

Gender Differences

Fiore and Curtin (1997) found a number of differences between the educational backgrounds of male and female principals. In the 1993–94 school year, 71 percent of male principals and 58 percent of female principals had degrees in educational administration. Female principals were as likely to hold degrees in elementary education (58 percent) as in educational administration, and a smaller percentage of male principals (29 percent) held elementary education degrees. In the same school year, men were more likely than women to have degrees in physical education (14 versus 3 percent) and in social studies (10 versus 3 percent). However, women were more likely than men to have degrees in special education (11 versus 4 percent).
During the 1987–88, 1990–91, and 1993–94 school years, athletic coaching remained a common experience for more than one-third of the male principals each year and a rare experience for women (4 percent, 4 percent, and 6 percent, respectively). Female principals were more likely to have been curriculum specialists or coordinators compared with male principals (30 versus 11 percent). And in 1993–94, female principals had more years of teaching experience before becoming principals than did males (13 versus 10 years). White principals averaged fewer numbers of years in the classroom (11 years) than minority principals in general (12 years) and black principals in particular (13 years).
Riehl and Byrd (1997) found that male and female teachers differed in terms of family backgrounds and argued that this may affect their socialization into administration. More male than female teachers were married, and fewer male teachers were divorced, separated, or widowed. Male teachers were more likely to have children under the age of 12.
The researchers also discovered that female and male teachers possessed different levels of aspirations and qualifications for school administration. Women were not as likely to want to leave teaching, to have administrator role models of the same gender, or to have advanced training in educational administration. But they were equally as likely to have had recent training in administration and were somewhat more likely to have advanced degrees in related fields. However, women teachers were not as likely to have had recent part-time experience in administration. According to Riehl and Byrd, these findings indicate that women possess a growing degree of career socialization toward school administration. The average female teacher is less likely, however, to become an administrator than the average male teacher.
William Spencer and Frances Kochan (2000) studied the career status of women administrators in Alabama in terms of demographic and career patterns. They found that principals in Alabama tend to come from within their own system. More than 80 percent became principals in the system in which they were already employed. However, of those who did come from outside the system, more than 75 percent were males. Thus, females are somewhat more likely to become principals in their own systems than are males. (P. 5)
Spencer and Kochan also discovered that women's entrance into the principalship has increased in recent years. But the low number of females in the principalship relative to their numbers in the teaching force may be the result of many factors: tradition, hiring practices, unwillingness or reluctance to seek the role, or issues related to family needs. (P. 10)

The Need for Gender Equity

In today's public schools, the role of the principal is vital, complex, and stressful. To maintain a pool of well-qualified principal candidates, school districts and universities must identify, nurture, and support these talented professionals—both males and females in equitable numbers.

Fiore, T. A., & Curtin, T. R. (1997). Public and private school principals in the United States: A statistical profile, 1987–88 to 1993–94. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Riehl, C., & Byrd, M. A. (1997, Spring). Gender differences among new recruits to school administration: Cautionary footnotes to an optimistic tale. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 19(1), 45–64.

Spencer, W. A., & Kochan, F. K. (2000). Gender-related differences in career patterns of principals in Alabama: A statewide study. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 8(9) [On-line]. Available: http://olam.ed.asu.edu/epaa/

National Center for Education Statistics. (1995). Schools and staffing survey, 1993-94. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education [On-line]. Available: http://nces.ed.gov/pubsold/D95/

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