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The Bottom Line

    Ask Jess: Student-to-Teacher Ratios?

    In this second installment of Ask Jess (think Dear Abby for ed finance), we compare today's school staffing ratios with those of the early 2000s.

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    Dear Jess: Has the # of teaching positions nationally increased more or less than the # of students in the last 20 years? What are the drivers?

    This is a timely question as conversations intensify around looming school budget pressures: end of ESSER funding and a national declining enrollment trend due to lower birth rates and decreased immigration. (See Declining Enrollment for more info.)


    The shortest answer to your question: student-to-teacher ratios have basically been flat for the past 20 years. 


    In 2001, there were 15.9 students per teacher and the projection for 2021 is 15.4 students per teacher. (See Teacher Compensation for more info.) Here’s another way to think about this: for every 100 students in 2001, there were 6.23 teachers; for every 100 students in 2019, there were 6.3 teachers. In an average 500-student school, that’s an extra .35 teacher (consider the scenario of a special education teacher or an art teacher who splits time between a middle school and a nearby high school).


    Wow, one teacher per 15-16 students? Why are teachers complaining about class sizes?

    This is where things get a little tricky. Let’s look at an example of how this might play out in a school day, and why those teacher ratios don’t translate to actual class-size ratios.

    Consider the example of a 6th grade class with 100 students in a middle school. State law mandates a class-size maximum of 25 students and the local bargaining agreement requires every teacher to have at least one planning “prep” period every day. (On average, there would be 6.3 teachers on staff for these 100 students.) 

    First period rolls around and…

    • 23 students go to Math (1 teacher)
    • 20 students go to Language Arts (1 teacher)
    • 22 students go to Science (1 teacher)
    • 25 students go to Physical Education/Health (1 teacher)
    • The Social Studies teacher has their planning period (1 teacher)
    • 7 students go to a Special Education class (1 teacher)
    • 3 students go to an English Language class (.35 teacher)


    As you can see, this isn’t a staff roster with much wiggle room. Noticeably absent from this schedule is Art or Music. And while Librarians are a separate staff category, their staff ratios have declined from one librarian per 800 students to one librarian per 1250 students over the past two decades. Further, this is a basic middle school schedule. Consider the additional complexity of high school staffing to accommodate more segmentation for things like Honors and AP courses, remedial courses, or Career/Technical courses. That kind of variety in course offerings can only be achieved through the significant scale of larger schools (over 1000 students) with this baseline ratio of instructional staff.


    Why am I seeing reports of a huge divergence in students (declining) and staff (growing)?

    First, it’s important to distinguish between all staff, administrative staff, and/or instructional staff. Teachers and classroom aides make up the highest percentage by far of total public school and district staff (about 90%). Such huge gaps in role-specific staff proportions require more context when we’re comparing percentage increases or decreases across populations with vastly different actual numbers of people. 
    Here’s an example of how percentage increases alone can be misleading: “Instructional Coordinators have increased more than 160% in the past 20 years.”

    Holy smokes! That’s an eye-popping growth rate regardless of enrollment. 

    Hold on just a minute… let’s look at this from another perspective: “In 2001 there was 1 Instructional Coordinator for every 1250 students; in 2019 there was 1 Instructional Coordinator for every 500 students.”

    Consider whether this framing makes you think about those increases differently. The difference between 1 Instructional Coordinator or 2 Instructional Coordinators in a large high school is 100% growth–yet, if you look at these staff counts relative to the number of students and teachers those Coordinators are supporting, you may be left with a very different impression of the workload of those staff members. By comparison, it would take 3 million more teachers to achieve 100% system-wide growth. Percentages require context when we’re comparing data of substantially different scale and proportion. 

    Another commonly reported statistic is that Administrators have increased 25% over the past 20 years. Using the same logic above, this translates to the difference between one school-level administrator per 330 students and one school administrator per 260 students. 

    Because there are so few non-instructional staff relative to the number of instructional staff members or students, percentage changes do not scale well for comparison purposes. Putting these shifts in the context of students per staff member is a more meaningful and comparable measure of changes to staff capacity over time. 


    It’s also important to consider student population shifts.

    The headline is that populations of high-need students, who typically require supplemental resources and/or legally mandated services, are increasing on nearly every indicator over the past 20 years:

    • Students eligible for Free or Reduced Price Lunch increased from 38% to ~50% (~5 million more students)
    • English Learners increased from 8% to 10% (~1.2 million more students)
    • Students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) increased from 13.3% to 14.7% (about ~1 million more students)
    • Students experiencing homelessness increased from 1.8 to 2.7% (~ 440K more students)


    These are each student populations requiring highly specialized services, sometimes including one-on-one staff support or transportation, and due to these populations comprising a minority of students in any particular grade-level or school, it can be incredibly challenging to provide requisite staff resources to these students amidst overall staffing and budget constraints. 


    Good, Bad, or Ugly?

    Whenever charts and graphs about staff ratios fly around, it’s generally in the context of a value judgment about school budgets, fiduciary responsibilities, and fiscal sustainability. I’ll borrow a phrase from the author K.C. Davis: staff ratios are “morally neutral.” Were staff ratios good 20 years ago and now they’re bad? Were they bad 20 years ago and now they’re good? As with most matters of education finance: it depends. 

    • What was the school’s student population like 20 years ago relative to today?
    • Were teachers feeling under/over capacity relative to today? 
    • What are you optimizing for? 
    • What is the goal of school staffing? 


    If the goal is to achieve an ideal of one-to-one instruction, schools have a lot of hiring to do. If the goal is to spend as little money per-pupil as possible, schools better prepare layoff plans. 


    Specific goals may vary state to state or district to district, but school staffing ratios should always be evaluated in the context of their adequacy for meeting student needs, relative to the desired educational outcomes for those students. 


    The world of K-12 education finance is complicated and convoluted (on a good day!) Jess Gartner, #edfintech pioneer and founder of Allovue, is responding to your public school finance questions in her column, Ask Jess.


    Jess Gartner

    Jess Gartner is the founder and CEO of Allovue, where edtech meets fintech - #edfintech! Allovue was founded by educators, for educators. We combine powerful financial technology with education data, giving administrators the power to connect spending to student achievement. Jess has been featured as one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 in Education (2015, 2016 All-Star), The Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch (2013), and Baltimore Magazine’s 40 Under 40 (2013). In 2014, she was recognized as the Maryland Smart CEO Innovator of the Year in the Emerging Business category. Before founding Allovue, Jess studied education policy at the University of Pennsylvania and taught in schools around the world, including Thailand, South Africa, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. She taught middle school humanities in Baltimore City and received her M.A. in teaching from Johns Hopkins University.