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Education, Leadership, and Policy Studies Researcher Recognized by Education Week

Rachel White’s Superintendent Research is a Top-10 Education Study for 2023

2023 has been quite the year for Rachel White, an assistant professor in the department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies She’s been nationally recognized for her early-career work in the field of educational leadership with the Jack A. Culbertson Award from the University Council For Educational Administration. She’s also been selected to serve on a United States Department of Education Regional Advisory Committee to provide advice and recommendations concerning the educational needs in the Appalachian region and how those needs can be most effectively addressed. However, her research into superintendent attrition and gender gaps has put her in the national spotlight.

Rachel White sits on a wooden credenza in front of a dark blue wall. She has fair skin, long blonde hair, and is wearing a black blouse, black pants, and black high-heeled shoes.

Rachel White

Recently, Education Week named White’s study on attrition and gender gaps among K-12 district superintendents as a Top-10 Educational Study of 2023. First published in the journal Educational Researcher, one way that White’s research demonstrates the magnitude of the gender gap is through superintendent first names. She finds that one out of every five superintendents in the United States is named Michael, David, James, Jeff, John, Robert, Steven, Chris, Brian, Scott, Mark, Kevin, Jason, Matthew, or Daniel. In fact, Education Week and Ed Surge brought the story to national attention with the articles “There’s a Good Chance Your Superintendent Has One of These 15 Names” and “What Are the Odd’s Your Superintendent is Named Michael, John, or David?”

In order to diversify the superintendency, women superintendents must be hired to replace outgoing men. However, drawing on the most recent data update of her National Longitudinal Superintendent Database, White recently published a data brief showing that over the last five years, 50% of the time a man turned over, he was replaced by another man, and a woman replaced a woman 10% of the time. A man replaced a woman 18% of the time, and a woman replaced a man 22% of the time.

When thinking about the importance of this research, White shared “Nearly ten years ago, the New York Times reported a similar trend among large companies: more S&P 1500 firms were being run by men named John than women, in total. The emulation of this trend in the K12 education sector, in 2024, is alarming. Public schools are often touted as “laboratories of democracy”: places where young people learn civic engagement and leadership skills to participate in a democratic society. Yet, what young people see in K12 public schools is that leadership positions—the highest positions of power in local K-12 education institutions—are primarily reserved for men.”

One thing is for certain, we have a way to go when it comes to balanced gender representation in school district leadership. White’s research has shown that, while over 75 percent of teachers and 56 percent of principals are women, the pace at which the superintendent gender gap is closing feels glacial: the current 5-year national average for gender gap closure rate is 1.4 percentage points per year. At this rate, the estimated year of national gender equality in the superintendency is 2039.

“Superintendents are among the most visible public figures in a community, interfacing with students, educators, families, business, and local government officials on a daily basis,” White shared. “A lack of diversity in these leadership positions can convey that a district is unwelcoming of diverse leaders that bring valuable insights and perspectives to education policy and leadership work.”

White continued, “Not only do we need to recruit and hire diverse leaders to the superintendency, but school boards and communities need to be committed to respecting, valuing, and supporting diverse district superintendents. New analyses of the updated NLSD show that women’s’ attrition rates spiked from 16.8% to 18.2% over the past year, while men’s remained stable around 17% for the past three years. We need to really reflect and empirically examine why this pattern has emerged, and what school boards, communities, and organizations and universities preparing and supporting women leaders can do to change this trajectory.”

 White has doubled down on her commitment to establishing rigorous and robust research on superintendents with the launch of The Superintendent Lab—a hub for data and research on school district superintendency. In fact, The Superintendent Lab is home to The National Longitudinal Superintendent Database, with data on over 12,500 superintendents across the United States, updated annually. With the 2023-24 database update completed, the NLSD now houses over 65,000 superintendent-year datapoints. The database allows the lab team to learn more about issues related to superintendent labor markets over time, and even produce interactive data visualizations for the public to better understand trends in superintendent gender gaps and attrition.

Along with a team of 10 research assistants and lab affiliates, White hopes to foster a collaborative dialog among policy leaders which may lead to identifying ways to create a more inclusive and equitable K-12 school systems.

“A comprehensive understanding of the superintendency in every place and space in the United States has really never been prioritized or pursued. My hope is that, through The Superintendent Lab, and the development of rigorous and robust datasets and research, I can elevate data-driven dialogue to advance policies and practices that contribute more equitable and inclusive spaces in education. And, along the way, I am passionate about the Lab being a space for students from all levels to engage in meaningful research experiences – potentially igniting a spark in others to use their voice and pursue opportunities that will contribute to great equity and inclusion in K12 education leadership,” said White.