The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach

Why do American public schools spend more of their operating budgets on non-teachers than almost every other country in the world, including nations that are as prosperous and humane as ours? We can’t be certain. But we do know this:

•The number of non-teachers on U.S. school payrolls has soared over the past fifty years, far more rapidly than the rise in teachers. And the amount of money in district budgets consumed by their salaries and benefits has grown apace for at least the last twenty years.

•Underneath the averages and totals, states and districts vary enormously in how many non-teachers they employ. Why do Illinois taxpayers pay for forty staff per thousand pupils while Connecticut pays for eighty-nine? Why does Orange County (Orlando), Florida, employ eleven teacher aides per thousand students when Miami-Dade gets by with seven?

What accounts for such growth and such differences? We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like on this topic, but it’s not a total mystery. The advent and expansion of special education, for example, led to substantial demand for classroom aides and specialists to address the needs of youngsters with disabilities. Broadening school duties to include more food service, health care, and sundry other responsibilities accounts for still more.

But such additions to the obligations of schools are not peculiar to the United States, and they certainly cannot explain big staffing differences from place to place within our country.

The Hidden Half: School Employees Who Don’t Teach, a new Fordham analysis, shines a bright light on how school staffing has been changing, both nationally and by state. It deconstructs the category of “non-teacher” as well as current data allow, shows which types have increased the most, and illustrates how states and districts vary in staffing levels. It also examines whether factors such as the number of students with special needs and a district’s size or “urbanicity” (rural districts tend to have more non-teaching personnel) are related to the number of non-teachers.

The greatest expansion is in the “teacher-aide” category, which went from virtually nonexistent in 1970 to the largest single staff position other than teachers. The ’70s witnessed much of this staff run-up relative to student enrollment. And this coincided with myriad federal legislation, including Section 504, Title IX, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which shifted the paradigm for schools from “do your best to educate everyone” to “educate everyone or get sued.”

Though a study such as this does not fully explain why these patterns and variations have developed, it can highlight the dramatic numbers themselves and urge district and state decision makers to examine their own practices and ask tough questions about their priorities.

This isn’t the first Fordham report to encourage such self-scrutiny. Two years ago, for example, we published Nate Levenson’s pioneering look at special ed, Boosting the Quality and Efficiency of Special Education, which found that districts could improve the educational outcomes of youngsters with disabilities and save money by revising their staffing patterns (and making corollary changes). That report specifically encouraged school to employ—and deploy—better teachers, not more teachers or non-teachers.

Nor is Fordham alone in tugging at this important thread in the fabric of American education. For instance, a 2012 report from the Friedman Foundation found that in over six decades, starting in 1950, U.S. public schools increased their non-teaching positions by 702 percent (versus 96 percent for students and 252 percent for teachers).

Yet beyond a few isolated examples, non-teachers in our schools have largely avoided the attention of researchers, reformers, and policymakers. Why is that so? Education leaders at every level have been obsessed about the quality, effectiveness, and costs of classroom teachers. (For example, the federal Department of Education recently unveiled an elaborate, if dubious, set of new policies and programs intended to make the distribution of “quality” teachers more equitable.) Why does the other half of school personnel remain hidden? It’s unthinkable not to consider if personnel shifts might strengthen both performance and efficiency.

Part of the problem stems from today’s woefully inadequate data. National statistics from the U.S. Department of Education, for instance, are rich with information about schoolteachers and principals but crude and unhelpful when it comes to non-teaching personnel. For example, that agency’s Local Education Agency Universe Survey reports that “other” staff accounted for 41 percent of all non-teaching staff at the district level in 2010. That’s more than a million people. But what do they actually do? The federal definition for this huge but vague category of personnel is “all other staff who serve in a support capacity and are not included in the categories of central office administrative support, library support, or school administrative support.” Illustrations range from bus drivers to security personnel to cafeteria workers. (A variant of the same federal definition adds maintenance staff.) Using such a generic, catchall category may make it easier for district bean counters (non-teachers themselves) to enter data into federal forms and computer programs, but it also makes for opaque and uninformative data.

We dug into state and district sources, too, and could rarely find what we sought by way of useful and revealing categories, totals, comparisons, trend lines, and associated price tags. How can education policymakers, executives, and budgeteers make informed staffing decisions if this enormous cadre of school employees are not even recorded in discrete subsets that can be tracked over time—along with their costs—and compared with similar H.R. categories and expenditures in other districts and states?

This dysfunction attests to the longstanding heedlessness of education leaders (and analysts) regarding the costs and benefits of non-teaching personnel.

Our sense is that these millions of people have quietly accumulated over the years as districts simply added employees in response to sundry needs, demands, and pressures—including state and federal mandates and funding streams—without carefully examining the decisions they were making or considering possible tradeoffs and alternatives. This was the path of least resistance and, at a time of rising budgets, was viable even if imprudent.

But it’s no longer sustainable in the public sector any more than the private. Observe how private firms go about reducing costs, boosting productivity, enhancing organizational efficiency, and increasing profitability: they almost always start with staffing. The Pentagon is putting itself through similar self-scrutiny. So is the U.S. Postal Service.

One could list plenty more examples. Changing staff—and staff-related budgets—is never easy, especially in the public sector, due to politics, contracts, and civil-service rules. But that’s what leaders are for: to overcome obliviousness, work through politics, catalyze rethinking, and rearrange practices that no longer deliver the required results at an affordable cost.

Hence our recommendations for education leaders, based on the present analysis:

1. Look at the practices of other districts, states, and countries to determine which ones might usefully be emulated or adapted in pursuit of better outcomes and efficiencies

2. Demand—and help gather—better data on the three million individuals who work for U.S. public schools but are not classroom teachers. Then scrutinize what they actually do to determine whether those functions are essential—and, if so, whether there might be a better way of performing them.

3. Be creative when structuring one’s organization and deploying resources in response to obligations. Consider what can be done better (or less expensively) with the help of technology. Consider whether, for example, a behavioral specialist—or reading specialist—might better meet the educational needs of some youngsters than a platoon of aides.

4. Each time you think of hiring (or replacing) someone, evaluate the necessity—and cost benefit—of that role. How vital is a given position to the school’s core mission? And is a full-time employee the best and most economical way to carry out a specific responsibility?

5. Take maximum advantage of staffing flexibility already available within today’s contractual, programmatic, and regulatory constraints—and where that’s not sufficient to make needed tradeoffs and sound management decisions, push hard for additional leeway. When necessary, make a proper fuss at the state capital or in Washington. Waivers can be gotten, statutes amended, exceptions made, and alternatives approved.

Above all, make yourself and your team look under this hood. You are almost certain to be surprised by what you find there.

– Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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