A portrait of Metro Milwaukee’s school leaders

By Joe Yeado

Much has been written about the importance of teachers and their efforts to educate children. While teachers are responsible for the students in their classrooms, school leaders are responsible for all the students in the school or district. They help motivate both students and teachers to attain success. These individuals are crucial elements of student success, and yet, what do we know about the characteristics of school leaders in our metro area?

A new report from the Public Policy Forum — Guiding Principals: An Analysis of Public School Leaders in Greater Milwaukee — addresses this question. Using the most up-to-date data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, we explored public school principals, assistant principals, and district officials in the four-county Milwaukee metropolitan area. Our analysis answers a number of questions, including:

  • How many school leaders are there in Greater Milwaukee and how does that number compare among school districts?
  • What are the ages and demographics of school leaders across the region?
  • What qualifications and levels of experience do school leaders possess?
  • What are the advancement options for school leaders and is there mobility across districts?

The education profession in Wisconsin has been the subject of much discussion and debate in recent years, particularly during consideration and implementation of Wisconsin Act 10. Consequently, our analysis includes data over multiple years to capture changes in school leader characteristics since the 2009-10 school year.

Some key findings include:

  • The number of school leaders in the metro area has declined by 32 (4.3%) since 2009-10. MPS lost 49 leaders, which means that other districts in the region collectively saw an increase of 17 school leaders.
  • School leaders are predominately white, with leaders of color comprising 27.8% of the workforce despite students of color making up 45.7% of enrollments.
  • The average age and average years of experience have fallen over time, indicating a younger, less experienced group of school leaders.
  • The number of school leaders age 55 and over is down 38.5% in recent years.
  • Mobility among school leaders exists, but with only 8.8% of leaders moving over the recent five-year period examined, mobility is not a widespread issue.
  • There are advancement pathways for school leaders, but with a reduction in assistant principals over time, the talent pool of future leaders is smaller than in the past.

The research findings are both instructive and incomplete. The analyses provide an in-depth understanding of school leaders throughout our region. And yet, without the ability to include leaders from private schools, the figures, patterns, and trends identified in this report do not encompass the entire educational environment of Greater Milwaukee.

As with many projects, this report raises more questions than it provides answers. Some questions for future research include:

  • Many smaller districts have leaders filling multiple roles. Do these districts have the resources they need to adequately staff their schools?
  • How will a shift towards younger, less experienced school leaders affect student achievement?
  • How do districts sustain and develop a pool of school leaders for future positions?

We aim to address these and other questions in further research.

This report is the second in our Metro Milwaukee Educator series focusing on the educator workforce in the Milwaukee area. The first report, Taking Attendance: An Analysis of Greater Milwaukee’s Teacher Workforce, found that the number of teachers in the region has decreased nearly 5% since 2009-10. In response to retirements and vacancies, districts have responded by hiring teachers who are less experienced, but not necessarily younger. The teaching workforce is 89% white, despite the fact that 46% of Metro Milwaukee’s K-12 students are students of color.

The final report in the Metro Milwaukee Educator series will quantify the teacher workforce pipeline to understand if current and projected staffing levels align with the number of teachers who may retire in the near future. We will also explore retention and professional development policies with an aim to understand how teachers are prepared to become future school leaders.

Taken together, this body of research on the educator workforce in Greater Milwaukee will help to inform school district leaders, policy stakeholders, and the public, about the people who lead our schools and educate our children.