Cultivating Race-Conscious School Leaders

A school leader with her students in a room

School principals want their schools to be environments where all students feel loved and supported. But are the leadership styles of school leaders creating an environment where they can happpen? 

September 15, 2021

Gregory M. Latshaw
Mike Gunzenhauser headshot photo Mike Gunzenhauser

Many principals want to make their schools more equitable and inclusive for children.

But some have an ethic of caring that does not recognize the importance of race. Does this omission hold them back from making a full impact as school leaders?

Michael Gunzenhauser, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, aims to shed more light on this question.

Along with his former doctoral student mentees—Osly Flores (EdD ’17), an assistant professor, education policy, organization and leadership at the University of Illinois, and Michael Quigley (PhD ’13), an assistant professor of organizational leadership at Robert Morris University—he is studying the impact of one’s perspectives on race on their school leadership ethics.

“We have a widespread commitment to caring among our school leaders and our teachers,” says Gunzenhauser, who is also an associate chair of Pitt Education’s department of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy. “We’ve got to build from that strength in order to rebuild the profession in a way that is race-conscious, race-positive, and that can actively enable us to work against racism.”

Osly FloresOsly Flores

Their ongoing work is based on in-depth interviews that Flores conducted with 22 school leaders from urban and suburban districts in Western Pennsylvania. Their goal was to examine the language that school leaders use when describing the opportunity gap among their students or when talking about their efforts to improve equity in schools. 

Within this interview group, 20 of the interview subjects were principals. That was by design. 

“The leadership of principals is really important,” says Flores, who prior to his faculty position at Illinois worked with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Principals structure the practices and policies in their buildings, and they set the language and the professional development for their teachers to focus on.” 

Thus far, Flores’ interviews have become the basis of four published research papers. A fifth paper, as well as a book tying all of the work together, is currently under development.

Predominant Caring Themes Among School Leaders

The group’s latest paper,  “Race-Conscious Ethics in School Leadership: From Impersonal Caring to Critical Responsibility,” was published in Teachers College Record in February 2021.

In analyzing the interviews with school leaders, Gunzenhauser, Flores, and Quigley noted the predominance of several different views of caring ethics held by principals. Principals’ responses were coded based on how they talked about the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their students and how they addressed inequities in opportunities among students. 

Among the principals, the four primary caring ethics were as follows: tough-love/tough caring, color-evasive caring, caring with minimal responsiveness, and community-based caring. 

Many school leaders, especially those in resource-strapped school districts, engaged in tough-love/tough-luck caring. This theme is characterized by a sink-or-swim mentality and is almost wholly dependent upon meritocracy. Oftentimes, school leaders displaying this ethic are white and come from working-class backgrounds themselves.

Explains Quigley: “This leader acknowledges that, ‘Yeah things are tough. But as a white guy from a working-class background, my family had it rough, too. My father had to work all these jobs. I’m not going to give you a pass even though the person who is Black has dealt with generations of anti-Black racism.” 

Principals also practiced color-evasive caring, which was most prevalent in school communities located within high-income and upper-middle-high income settings. These principals worked with very few students of color or students from low-income homes. Consequently, these school leaders were the most likely to say they don’t see color and that they love all of their students equally.

“In this scenario, you are purposely choosing not to see certain things,” says Quigley of the color-evasive caring theme. “ It’s an intentional evasion.  It's an intentional turning of a blind eye. And it ends up becoming a softer version of sink-or-swim.”

By contrast, there were a few principals who practiced the form of community-based caring. These leaders, according to the researchers, understand the importance of race and the value of ethnic heritage. They care not only about their students but also about the community, which they view as a source for cultural wealth. Oftentimes, these school leaders are Black and grew up in similar circumstances as their students. Or, if they are a white leader, they are an anti-racist ally. 

“Unfortunately, the one that is the least prevalent is the one that is the most needed,” says Quigley of the community-based caring theme.

Finally, some school leaders are characterized by practicing the form of caring with minimal responsiveness. Those in this group have developed some degree of race-consciousness but have not taken the next step by enacting those beliefs. These school leaders were often found in districts undergoing a shift in the demographics of their student population. 

“This is someone who gets it, but they are alone and don’t have the resources or support,” says Quigley.

Moving Toward Race-Conscious School Leadership 

Michael Quigley headshot photo Michael Quigley
Based on this research, Gunzenhauser, Flores, and Quigley say there is a strong case to be made for the importance of cultivating race-conscious caring ethics in school leaders.

They argue that having racial awareness is the key to effectively incorporating restorative practices that improve equity in schools, such as efforts to integrate culturally responsive teaching or to hire more diverse faculty. 

“School leaders need to recognize race and shouldn’t be afraid to put race at the forefront of their leadership,” says Flores. “There are limitations to their caring if they are not able to demonstrate recognition of the value of ethnicity or culture.” 

The researchers contend that all school leaders should practice race-consciousness. 

“It doesn’t matter if your school is 90% Black or Brown, or 5% Black or Brown. Those 5% still matter,” says Flores.  

Their paper builds on the work of two previously published papers.

The first paper, “The Problems with Colorblind Leadership Revealed: a Call for Race-Conscious Leaders,” which was authored by Flores and Gunzenhauser, was published in 2019 in The Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education.

The second paper, “Justice in the Gaps: School Leader Dispositions and the Use of Data to Address the Opportunity Gap,” which was authored by Flores and Gunzenhauser, was published in February 2021 in Urban Education

The trio hope school leaders can use this knowledge to reevaluate their own caring mindsets — and positive change can start with principals.

“Principals remain the most consequential persons in education today,” says Gunzenhauser. “Focusing on them will help us to cultivate a more effective teaching force but also one that makes school more joyful.”

About the Faculty

Michael G. Gunzenhauser

Michael G. Gunzenhauser

Michael G. Gunzenhauser is Associate Professor and Associate Chair for the Department of Educational Foundations, Organizations, and Policy. He is a philosopher of education and qualitative research methodologist and is currently working on several research topics, including race-conscious ethics, educator professionalism, and responsive caring.

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