Reflecting on Early Principal Hiring Practices to Develop an Inclusive Process that Supports equity

Early Principal Hiring Processes are riddled with practices that exclude BIPOC applicants. This study identifies specific practices that are the most detrimental and provides a path forward to better support and hire BIPOC principals.

Reviewed by Drisana Hughes


This study examines early principal hiring practices (EPHPs) and considers how they may disrupt or perpetuate racial inequity and exclusion in principalship. The authors define EPHPs as activities and processes that begin with job descriptions and include recruitment, collecting application materials, candidate screening, and written criteria used during the process. The authors focus particularly on the hiring practices of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) candidates to better understand how EPHPs have functioned within the historical framework of racism in the hiring of principals. The study uses Quantitative Criticalism (QuantCrit) as a framework, which provides a fundamentally critical lens, and focuses on disrupting white logic and analyzing data with a focus on racism and social justice. The term “white logic” refers to white supremacy in data analysis — specifically the idea that there is eternal objectivity among the views of elite white researchers and academics. This study aims to address the problematic educational environment in the United States where 53% of students in public schools are BIPOC while only 22% of principals and 10% of superintendents are BIPOC. While there are a series of empirical studies on labor market mechanisms that can cause inequitable promotion practices, very little research exists on the hiring process itself. 

Dr. Amy Luelle Reynolds is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology at the University of Buffalo Graduate School of Education. Her primary research focus is on multicultural competence and training in counseling psychology and higher education. Dr. Lolita A. Tabron is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Dr. Tabron’s research explored how leadership practice and statistical data can positively transform educational systems or reproduce systemic racism and educational inequalities.

Methods and Findings

The data used for this study was a subset of data collected from an exploratory, survey-based study of principal hiring practices among K-12 districts (Reynolds, 2020). This dataset includes 240 districts from a stratified random sample of 1,000 districts in the United States. For the purposes of this study, the dataset included responses to 47 survey items that were relevant to the definition of EPHPs. After limiting the scope of the survey items, the authors used survey weights to produce estimates that represented the target population. By combining the QuantCrit framework, existing literature, and multiple reviews of the data, Reynolds and Tabron created the EPHP Equity Continuum, a framework which categorizes EPHPs into three descriptive levels: 

  1. Suppressing: all EPHPs that are likely to reproduce exclusionary hiring practices and systems for BIPOC candidates were coded in this level. 
  2. Reproducing: EPHPs that do not actively hinder an equitable process themselves, but fail to advance progress toward a more inclusive hiring system are considered in this level.  
  3. Diversifying: EPHPs that could potentially generate a diverse pipeline for hiring principals in the future were placed in this level.

On average, most districts used about 23 EPHPs across all three levels. When disaggregated for each level, the authors find some troubling patterns with regard to hiring practices among the dataset. The following suppressing EPHPs were common practice:

  •  About one-third of the districts did not revise or write a new job description (JD) for their most recent vacancy 
  •  More than half of the districts did not use explicit written hiring criteria throughout the hiring process.

Furthermore, the majority of districts used other suppressing EPHPs, like  letters of recommendation,  senior-level staff at the screening stage, and word-of-mouth recruitment tactics. Many districts used the following reproducing EPHPs:

  • Using a resume and cover letter as initial application materials
  • Posting all vacancies on the district website
  • Using  a regional geographic area —as opposed to local — for their recruitment search. 

Only a small number of diversifying EPHPs were used by the  districts in the sample. Mainly, schools based their decision on district needs assessments and recruited candidates from across the state. After analyzing different descriptive levels across the survey responses, it was clear that districts’ EPHPs failed to change longstanding patterns of discrimination in principal hiring. 


Reynolds and Tabron make several valuable conclusions that also serve as critical policy recommendations for school leadership moving forward. First, using explicit written criteria is crucial in creating a level playing field within EPHPs. Notably, 61% of districts in the study did not use explicitly written criteria, and in the absence of that, candidate lists can become subjective and overly reliant on social networks. Second, districts should value racial diversity  as well as a commitment to social justice in leadership. 87% of districts considered prior leadership experience to be the most important factor for hiring, while 31% considered a commitment to social justice and equity an important factor. This also means that hiring more principals who look like the students and community they represent should be prioritized. In conclusion, this study provides strong evidence that school districts should reconsider their hiring processes and develop more inclusive, stronger hiring systems that are based on supporting principals and reducing systems of marginalization. 


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