America seems more ready than ever for long-overdue conversations about race, gender and opportunity. One setting where those conversations matter a lot is in our schools — the places that explicitly define opportunity in our children’s formative years.
When we select people to lead our education systems, we send a loud signal to our children about what is possible for them. That’s why we need to talk about who holds the role of the nation’s top education post, secretary of education. As President-elect Joe Biden mulls Cabinet appointments, I suggest it is high time a woman of color led the U.S. Department of Education.
So far, no woman of color has sat in that seat. Since the role was established in 1979, there have been 11 secretaries. White men have held the post for more than 24 of those 41 years.
No one should underestimate the public impact of the secretary. While it’s true that the federal role in education is limited, deferring in most areas to states and communities, and federal funding makes up less than one-tenth of overall school funding, the power of the bully pulpit is huge.
The symbolism of a woman of color at the helm of the Department of Education would be enormous, creating pressure on school boards and states to diversify their leadership. And just as important, having a woman of color as secretary of education would write an indelible story for all our children — girls of color most of all.
The secretary’s ability to define the national agenda in education outstrips the policy levers under his — or her — control.
Our school systems were designed more than a century ago on a model in which unmarried young women reported up to male administrators.
“The system required subordination,” David B. Tyack writes in “The One Best System,” his history of American urban education. “Women were generally subordinate to men; the employment of women as teachers thus augmented the authority of the largely male administrative leadership.”
It’s been six years since students of color became a majority in our public schools. Teaching is one of the most female-dominated professions. Yet the typical school superintendent is a married white man. In a 2019 study we did at Chiefs for Change, women of color made up 25 percent of leadership teams in districts we examined — but only 11 percent of superintendents.
When we go back, over and over, to choosing leaders who look the same as one another, but so little like the talent pool of skilled educators, we miss so much.
Look at the incredible women of color changing outcomes for students and families — Sharon Contreras in Guilford County, North Carolina, Susana Cordova in Denver, Janice Jackson in Chicago, LaTonya Goffney in Aldine, Texas, Angélica Infante-Green in Rhode Island, Barbara Jenkins in Orange County, Florida, Aleesia Johnson in Indianapolis, Kyla Johnson-Trammell in Oakland, California, Christina Kishimoto in Hawaii, Sonja Santelises in Baltimore and Penny Schwinn in Tennessee.
The poet Adrienne Rich once said, “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” That same effect occurs when children see an endless procession of education leaders who look nothing like them.
At Chiefs for Change, we created an initiative called Future Chiefs to ensure that diverse, committed up-and-coming leaders had the skills and the networks to excel as district superintendents and state chiefs. We’ve been thrilled to see 41 percent of our leaders land that top role and to see our women stepping into searches for chief roles in greater numbers.
Still, there are far too many instances of the not-so-subtle sexism that keeps too many women from high-level education jobs. Racial and gender bias play a pernicious part in keeping many of the most talented education leaders in the nation out of these roles.
Thankfully, that is beginning to change. When it comes time to appoint the next secretary of education, a woman of color should get the job.
To President-elect Biden, we’re ready to suggest some excellent candidates.
Julia Rafal-Baer is the chief operating officer of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education chiefs and a former assistant commissioner at the New York State Education Department.
This story about the secretary of education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.