How Accurate are Reports of a Staffing Surge in Education?

A recent report published by the Friedman Foundation for Education Choice argued that the number of full-time school system employees grew at 2.6 times the rate of student growth between the years of 1992 and 2009. The report, titled The School Staffing Surge, also showed that the added staff did nothing to actually improve academic outcomes for students, which had remained mostly flat over the same period.

Later on the Friedman Foundation released a follow-up study – The School Staffing Surge, Part II – which broke down the data in the original report by state and also responded to a number of critiques leveled at the original. Yet according to the National Education Policy Center, the follow-up did very little to dispel the serious problems with either report, chiefly by failing to acknowledge the fact that over the period studied, both student achievement scores and school dropout rates have seen substantial improvement.

Furthermore, NEPC claims that metrics used by both reports such as the ratio between administrator and non-teaching staff to both teachers and students has never shown to correlate at all with student achievement data.

The new companion report does more of the same: It disaggregates the employment growth by state and highlights different indicators related to how much money might have been saved in hypothetical scenarios where personnel hiring did not go up by as much. None of these indicators have been shown to have any meaningful relationship with student achievement. Finally, the report, like its predecessor, proffers expanded school choice, in the form of more charter schools vouchers for private schools, as a remedy; yet there is little evidence that private schools and charter schools favorably differ from traditional public schools along these dimensions.

Both the original report and the new one argue that states could have saved a substantial amount of money had their staffing growth not exceeded the growth in student numbers. They also contend that the states – Texas chief among them – won nothing by these additional expenditures because nationwide, student performance hadn’t shown improvement over the years studied.

Yet statistics from the Department of Education and from the National Center for Education Statistics show substantial improvement in student outcomes between the years of 1973 and 2008, especially when it comes to closing income and race achievement gaps. Not only has the Black-White gap decreased by nearly half and math gap by nearly a third in that time, but college enrollment numbers and graduation rates are both at an all time high.

Joydeep Roy reviewed the report, The School Staffing Surge, Part II, for the Think Twice think tank review project. Dr. Roy, a visiting professor at Teachers College – Columbia University and a senior economist for the New York City Independent Budget Office, prepared the review for the National Education Policy Center with funding from the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

With no attempt to benchmark hiring against each state’s needs and circumstances, the new report is once again unable to make any reasoned judgment about whether the added hiring was useful or wasteful. The result, Roy concludes, is that the new report, “much like the original one, is devoid of any serious policy implications.”