AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
New data released earlier this month shows that funding for the New York City school system has exploded by 47% since 2016, even as enrollment and test scores cratered – a similar pattern seen in hundreds of other school districts throughout the country, particularly in large metro areas. As the left’s promise that more funding for public education will automatically lead to better outcomes for students comes up empty, a 2021 study on the impact of effective school principals may provide valuable insight into how to save America’s floundering education system.
Despite spending $37,000 per student in 2022, just 38% of kids in the New York public school system demonstrated proficiency in English Language Arts during the 2021-2022 school year, while just 41% rated proficient in math. Even though the system lost 141,000 students from 2016 to 2022 and test scores are getting worse, however, that budget is expected to increase to $41,000 per student by 2026.
In other cities, the situation is even worse. The Baltimore public school system reported in February that zero students are proficient in math across 23 schools. Cities like Los Angeles are addressing achievement shortfalls by simply artificially increasing grades. This has led to a situation in which 75% of 6th graders earn A’s, B’s, and C’s while only 25% can meet state testing standards.
Although the public education system was in crisis long before the pandemic, COVID-related school closures exacerbated existing problems, particularly in schools that serve low-income students. An analysis of 2022 test scores concluded that two years of pandemic lockdowns wiped out 20 years of academic growth. A majority of students in major cities can no longer meet basic math proficiency standards.
The basic response of Democrats to pandemic shutdowns was to throw as much money as possible at the public school system without any regard as to how that money was used. Some schools used “pandemic relief” to build new athletic facilities. In total, the federal government doled out $190 billion in extra funding to public schools, all with virtually no oversight or accountability.
For liberals, this should have been the moment for public education to thrive. The left has long insisted that the solution to failing schools is an ever-increasing pile of money for education. Yet instead of recovering from the pandemic and helping students regain lost ground, schools have continued to fail their communities.
A study published in 2021 on the connection between effective principals and student achievement may provide a better answer for how schools can get back on track. The report, published by the Wallace Foundation, found that effective principals “are at least as important for student achievement as previous reports have concluded—and in fact, their importance may not have been stated strongly enough… Principals have substantively important effects that extend beyond student achievement.”
In other words, many schools are likely not suffering from a lack of funding, but a lack of leadership.
Principals are often dismissed as middle management bureaucrats with little value to the education of their students. This study suggests they actually play a critical role in fostering a healthy and productive environment for students and teachers.
One of the study’s most surprising findings is that an effective principal is more valuable to student outcomes than an effective teacher: “Across six rigorous studies estimating principals’ effects using panel data, principals’ contributions to student achievement were nearly as large as the average effects of teachers identified in similar studies. Principals’ effects, however, are larger in scope because they are averaged over all students in a school, rather than a classroom.”
The study also notes that effective principals engage in “teacher evaluation, instructional coaching, and the establishment of a data-driven, school-wide instructional program to facilitate such interactions.” The result of these evaluations can lead a principal to conclude that a teacher is no longer effective and should either retire, be terminated, or resign.
Teachers’ unions, meanwhile, have gone out of their way to make firing teachers all but impossible. By protecting bad teachers from accountability, unions are simultaneously disadvantaging good teachers and preventing good principals from doing their job.
The study concludes that schools should be viewed not as a disparate group of teachers working alone, but as a cohesive unit of educators working toward a single goal. The principal, as the leader of this unit, plays a vital role in achieving the mission of preparing students to live happy and prosperous lives.
Funding, therefore, should be allocated with this structure in mind. As with most other organizations, resources alone are not enough, and public schools need guidance and direction to best use the resources taxpayers provide to them.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.