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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Gifted Leadership Is Not the Fix Public Schools Need

Treating schools as businesses isn't helpful.


Profitable businesses often attribute their successes to great leadership. After all, a transformational leader can turn around a failing business by making the high-level decisions necessary to cut costs and improve product quality. Business leaders can make these difficult decisions by gaining the indispensable information provided through dispersed consumer choices and price signals.

Some education scholars believe that business-like leadership decisions could turn failing traditional public schools around as well. Unfortunately, it is not that simple in the case of residentially assigned government schools.

But why not?

Why Restrictions are Necessary for Public School Leaders

If an incompetent leader ruins a given school’s academic performance, children bear the consequences and parents remain powerless. In an open market, leadership quality levels are able to remain high without state-mandated certification requirements and on-the-job restrictions. Of course, this is not the case when children are compelled to attend – and parents are forced to fund – schools based on their zip codes. What happens when a malevolent or incompetent leader controls a given government school that children cannot escape? What incentive does the unfit leader have to change his or her actions?

This is the root of the problem. Since families are not free to choose where they will allocate their children’s educational resources, leaders do not receive the information or the incentives necessary to excel. As a result, top-down regulations are essential in schools that do not allow for bottom-up regulation from parents and children. Currently, if an incompetent leader ruins a given school’s academic performance, children bear the consequences and parents remain powerless.

However, entrepreneurial leadership could improve traditional public schools – in theory – if the planner somehow has access to great information.

But how can we expect the planner to perform a business-like environmental analysis without the indispensable information gained from consumer choices? If a given business attracts customers and charges relatively high prices, competitors can alter their own behavior in order to earn a profit. On the other hand, the best that government school leaders can do is guess about what they believe parents actually – or should – want.

But what if an innovative leader manages to step up to the plate within the traditional public school system?

Even Motivated Leaders Fail in Public Schools

It is entirely possible for an extraordinary person with exceptional leadership skills to emerge in a government school. However, when people are not rewarded for superior results, they may lose the motivation necessary to continue their success or they may leave the institution altogether. And even if the school principals somehow keep their steam going, it is not clear that their teachers will listen all that much. Why should they? Many risk-averse people become public school teachers precisely because the profession comes with comforting job security and rewards longevity rather than the outstanding achievement that most resilient leaders encourage.

The great leader would also be limited in public schools by all of the regulations set in place to prevent potential harm from inept leaders. Unfortunately, as shown in a recent study of mine, and in figure 1 below, even after controlling for several principal and school characteristics, public school leaders are much less likely than their peers in private schools to be given the authority to do much of anything to make their institutions successful. Specifically, public school principals are 5 to 20-percentage points less likely to report that they have a major influence on six different school activities such as establishing a curriculum, hiring teachers, and setting discipline policy.

Figure 1: Public School Principal Autonomy Relative to Private School Principals

Since traditional government schools are theoretically – and empirically – incompatible with robust leadership, we should not be all that surprised about lackluster student performance year after year.

At the same time, it would be wrong to blame public school teachers or principals for our nation’s mediocre track record. If you or I were in their positions, we would also be destined to fail. Not because we are bad people or unqualified for the job, but because the current system makes the leadership position utterly meaningless. Because families cannot vote with their feet, the information, incentives, and autonomy necessary for school leaders to perform well simply do not exist.

In order for leaders to propel schools forward, we must have faith in parents to make choices about their children’s educational experiences. Since this would hold school leaders accountable to families, hiring certification requirements and restrictions on autonomy would be unnecessary. Only then can principal leadership have a significant impact on the success of our schools.


  • Corey A. DeAngelis is the Director of School Choice at Reason Foundation and an adjunct scholar at Cato Institute.