A new report from the Fordham Institute seeks to raise awareness for the “hidden half” of education personnel who aren’t teachers.
From 1970 to 2010, the number of non-teaching staff in American public schools has soared by 130 percent, vastly outpacing the growth in teachers. In some states, like Maine, the ratio of non-teaching staff to students has more than doubled. The effect is most pronounced in rural areas and small towns, while urban areas have seen relatively less growth.
Overall, spending on non-teaching staff is over 26 percent of school expenditures in the U.S., well above the OECD average of about 15.5 percent. Among comparable countries, only Denmark spends more, with the United Kingdom coming close.
These personnel include everybody from custodians and librarians to bus drivers and counselors. The largest and fastest growing group, however, is teacher aides, an amorphous mass of paraprofessionals with no clearly defined responsibilities. Many aides work one-to-one with special education students, some assist in larger classrooms, while others may actually work heavily on other tasks like IT while keeping the “teacher aide” label. In 1970, less than two percent of all school staff were teacher aides; today, nearly twelve percent are.
Matt Richmond, the research analyst who authored the report, said that the broad classification of teachers aides made it difficult to pinpoint why exactly staff numbers have risen so much. One popular theory repeatedly encountered while creating the report, he said, was that staff numbers were rising due to increasing numbers of special education students, especially those with autism. However, special education only appeared to explain some of the growth, Richmond said.
“If you look at just suburbs, very average pairs of suburbs, you could see a huge variation in the number of non-teaching personnel or number of aides, even with the same number of special ed kids,” he said. An additional factor, he said, is the character of particular administrators and school districts. Some wealthier districts have demanding parents who can successfully push for more personnel hiring, he said, while other districts have cost-cutting superintendents who aggressively work to keep personnel levels lower.
Another hypothesis Richmond has, though he said more research would be needed, is that growth in staff in many districts is driven by sheer inertia.
“Teacher aides are cheap, and you can hire them part-time,” Richmond said. This makes it a less costly decision for administrators to increase their numbers, a decision that they might then make again and again.
Richmond said that while the report chronicled the degree to which non-teaching staff have risen, more research is needed to determine what is driving the ongoing growth, and whether the growth is helpful at all to educational outcomes. He said with non-teacher staff taking up a quarter of school expenditures, it’s time for education reformers to stop overlooking them when investigating ways to improve schools.
“This absolutely needs to become a part of our conversation,” he said.
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