Preparing, hiring, and supporting education leaders: The Lead the Change interview with Lauren Bailes

What does it take to support the development of a diverse group of education leaders? Lauren Bailes discusses this and other key issues of educational change in In this month’s Lead the Change (LtC) interview. Bailes is an assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware who explores how organizational, social-cognitive, and leadership theory unite to promote the success of school leaders and K-12 students.The LtC series is produced by Alex Lamb and colleagues from the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. A pdf of the fully formatted interview is available on the LtC website

Lead the Change: The 2022 AERA theme is Cultivating Equitable Education Systems for the 21st Century and charges researchers and practitioners with dismantling oppressive education systems and replacing them with anti-racist, equity, and justice-oriented systems. To achieve these goals, researchers must engage in new methodologies, cross-disciplinary thinking, global perspectives, and community partnerships to respond to the challenges of the 21st century including the COVID-19 Pandemic and systemic racism among other persistent inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems and reimagine new ways of thinking and doing in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Lauren Bailes: Two things come to mind for me in response to this call. First, I’m trying to stay connected to practitioners and stakeholders in my local contexts as much as possible in order to listen and learn about their needs in the midst of a rapidly shifting set of systems. I recently had a conversation with a state education leader in Delaware and he asked me, “Do you ever worry that you’ll do research for forty years and you will have become irrelevant?” I told him that I think about that most days. I think, right now, my responsibility—and the way to preclude that irrelevance—is to tailor my work to the espoused needs of education leaders and practitioners around me. I try to conceive of my research agenda as a way to be of service; that necessarily entails collaboration, flexibility, and pivots—all of which definitely keep things current and engaging.

For me, this has certainly meant attending to meaningful research questions using high-quality methodological approaches and publishing in respected outlets, but I don’t want to stop there. One of my favorite moments of my career thus far was when one of my EdD students (a Black woman who was at that time an assistant principal) saw the assistant principal findings from my and a colleague’s AERA Open piece (Bailes & Guthery, 2020) in EdWeek and reached out to me to say, “Hey! This is you, right? This is everything I’ve been trying to say in my district!” This encapsulated so much for me: research has to be multilingual and speak the languages of our research colleagues and our practitioner colleagues. For Sarah and me, this has meant writing shorter summaries of our research in plain language with clear action steps which follow the peer-reviewed research articles. This is not new information, but I take this responsibility very seriously. I’ve also tried to take on some responsibility for leader preparation in my state—both through our EdD program and through other initiatives like the Governor’s Institute for School Leadership (GISL), which is a year-long executive style professional learning experience for third-year Assistant Principals who seek promotion in the school system. My colleague Bryan VanGronigen and I co-wrote the curriculum for the year, and I also teach in the program. The woman who contacted me about the EdWeek writeup graduated from our EdD program then spent a year with GISL and is now a district leader. For her and others like her—in our preparation programs and in our statewide leader supports—the job of translating research clearly in diverse outlets, is incredibly important, as is the practical enactment of what I find and espouse in research.

LtC: Your recent work examines the impact of “disappearing diversity” on the hiring of teachers of color. You have also examined the path to the principalship for assistant principals of color. What are some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience examining the growing equity issues of school staffing?

LB: School staffing is the chief concern I hear among my practitioner colleagues. Whether it’s hiring a highly qualified teacher, finding someone to cover a special education classroom, identifying an instructional coach for the school’s one STEM teacher, or retaining a principal, staffing is at the forefront for many school leaders.

Staffing shortages are certainly not new to schools and the acuity of that challenge varies by context; in Delaware, for example, 41% of principals are eligible for retirement in the next five years. Throughout the educator pipeline, there is a profound need to get positions filled. But even in the midst of a staffing crisis, just filling positions is insufficient. We have to maintain focus on equitable and just practices associated with recruiting, hiring, developing, retaining, and promoting education professionals (Bailes & Guthery, 2021).

Having a racially diverse pool of educators is good for all students and not just students of color, even though we also know that students of color experience particular benefits when they are taught and led by people who look like them (e.g., Simon et al., 2015).

One thing that became clear to me as Dr. Sarah Guthery and I wrote about teacher hiring was that we lose so many teachers of color in their teacher preparation programs. Whether that’s due to the cost of those programs, biased systems of licensure and certification, or lack of support among predominantly white systems of preparation, we have to make teacher preparation not just attractive but feasible for people of color. These might include more incentives for early career teachers of color as well as induction supports.

“We have to maintain focus on equitable and just practices associated with recruiting, hiring, developing, retaining, and promoting education professionals.”

We know from literature, and from the experiences of our practitioner colleagues, that the challenges inherent to education careers are multiplied when those educators are the only or one of very few people of color in their organizations. So, networks and ‘taps’ matter a lot. It’s critically important that, as women and people of color indicate interest in school leadership, they are able to identify systems of support and mentorship to get them into those positions, to scaffold their skills as they move into leadership, and then take seriously their development in those positions in order to retain them.

Ltc: In your study of principal promotion in Texas, you find that Black assistant principals and women high school assistant principals have harder paths to the principalship than their White and male counterparts. What policies and practices can school systems put in place to ensure equitable promotion?

LB: There are a lot of things districts can do and they fall roughly into issues of perception and issues of preparation. It’s also important to note that our study has been replicated a couple of times and the exact promotion patterns vary in different contexts, so I strongly recommend getting familiar with those patterns in your context. However, some of the perceptions regarding the leadership of women and people of color persist across systems. One of the most interesting things that I learned in the process of writing that paper with Dr. Guthery was that, even though we did not find a difference in likelihood of promotion to the principalship for women, we found that women were far more likely to be promoted to principalships in elementary and middle schools than in high schools. Given that superintendents and other district-level leaders are often hired out of high schools, this renders a lot of women invisible for those promotions (and has lasting consequences for pay equity). Principals of lower schools may be perceived as less ‘tough’ or as having to contend with fewer complex organizational management issues and that’s just not true (see for example: Joy, 1998). This is a perception problem and one we can and should counter very directly.

“Efforts toward equitable principal promotion have to be paired with other issues of persistent segregation as well.”

Similarly, principal licensure exams function as a sorting mechanism for many principal candidates of color. Despite similar qualifications to their white peers, aspiring leaders of color may be removed from candidacy because of licensure exams. This is also an opportunity to use the Professional Standards for Educational Leaders (PSEL) in lieu of biased exams to enhance justice and equity within principal hiring and promotion practices. No standards are perfect, and they require careful training to be used well, but assessing principal candidates through the lens of standards rather than licensure exams may be one way to create more equitable access to school leadership for women and people of color.

Superintendents are best positioned to enact some of these reforms. They can call for audits, examine hiring records (including applicant pools that are often inaccessible to researchers), change job postings and hiring structures, and deploy resources for support and mentoring opportunities for people who are underrepresented in school leadership.

Finally, it’s important to recall that issues of segregation among education professionals do not occur in a vacuum—they’re influenced by racism, sexism, misogyny, and oppression throughout our systems of housing, medical care, higher education, and the list goes on. Efforts toward equitable principal promotion have to be paired with and are more likely to be successful as we concurrently attend to other issues of persistent segregation as well.

LtC: Educational Change expects those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?

LB: I see a tremendous amount of curiosity and willingness to experiment among many of my collaborators—both researchers and practitioners. My conversations with local education leaders suggest that the inequities and challenges associated with schooling in the last two years are not new—they weren’t created by the pandemic—but they were instead thrown into stark relief by the pandemic. Researchers have one set of language and tools to name those challenges, and I’m consistently impressed when I see researchers expand their language, outlets, and tools to be more inclusive of practitioners.

Similarly, I’ve seen practitioners take on some really brave and creative work regarding equity, school discipline, community engagement, instruction, and cycles of school improvement and they’re looking for research partners to support that work. Our practitioner colleagues spent two years creating systems to do schooling with unthinkable constraints on staffing, resources, and technology, so they’re empowered to innovate in ways that previously seemed outside the ‘grammar’ of schooling.

“Get close to a school and support the shared work of the teachers, families, leaders, and students there.”

We’ve seen systems that are breaking new ground in leadership preparation, team teaching arrangements, and school-wide equity training. So if you’re looking for partnership opportunities, get close to a school and support the shared work of the teachers, families, leaders, and students there. Their work is accelerating, rather than slowing, towards justice and equity—often in spite of profound barriers associated with resources and policymaking.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

LB: I’m learning a lot from thought leaders in the conversation about CritQuant (critical approaches to quantitative methods). I employ a lot of administrative data and I’m keenly aware of their limitations and the ways in which the assumptions embedded in those data perpetuate oppressions along dimensions of race, class, and gender. Categories—like those that currently characterize quantitative data— are necessarily limiting and so I’m trying to think about ways to acknowledge meaningful differences in how individuals are treated by education systems (for example, people of color are less likely to be promoted from assistant principalships to principalships than are their white counterparts) while also exploring ways to think beyond the limitations of the categories in those data. I’m excited about the conversations in this space and the ways in which we have more opportunities for collaboration across theoretical and methodological boundaries.

I’m also really excited about the recent emphasis on PSEL Standard 3, which addresses equity. As I mentioned above, I think there’s a real appetite among schools for concrete and creative steps to increase equity in their schools at every level. Standard 3— which includes skills like cultural responsiveness, an emphasis on each child, and inclusive decision-making—is really brought to life in the other nine standards. For example, what does it look like to carry out inclusive decision-making with instructional faculty or with families? How do leaders enact cultural responsiveness in their communications with families? How do school discipline policies attend to the needs of each child? As I’ve worked with school leaders, the overwhelming refrain is something like, “I’m committed to equity—I just don’t quite know how to do it.” It seems like some clear direction on how to bring Standard 3 to life will offer them some purchase as they engage equity work in their own contexts. I’m so excited to be connected to more of that work, and I’m really optimistic that such clarity will contribute to overall school improvement.

Overall, I feel very lucky to be surrounded by talented, committed colleagues at University of Delaware and nationally as well as in our surrounding communities and schools. I’m consistently encouraged by their technical expertise, courage, and optimism, and I’m confident that educational change is possible as we learn from each other and continue to prioritize students.


Sawchuk, S. (2020, June 15). For Black candidate and women, it takes longer to be promoted to principal. Education Week.

Bailes, L. P., & Guthery, S. (2020). Held Down and Held Back: Systematically Delayed Principal Promotions by Race and Gender. AERA Open.

Bailes, L. P., & Guthery, S. (2021). Disappearing diversity and the probability of hiring a nonwhite teacher: Evidence from Texas. (EdWorkingPaper: 21-447). Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

Joy, L. (1998). Why are women underrepresented in public school administration? An empirical test of promotion discrimination. Economics of Education Review, 17(2), 193-204.

Simon, N. S., Johnson, S. M., & Reinhorn, S. K. (2015). The challenge of recruiting and hiring teachers of color: Lessons from six high-performing, high-poverty, urban schools. The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers.

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