Public schools across the country have successfully lowered student-teacher ratios despite school staff shortages by continuing to hire staff while student enrollment rates are down.
Teachers are leaving the profession at a concerning rate around the country, and hiring new education staff remains a major challenge. Combined with the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, local education agencies (LEAs) are facing a perfect storm scenario around the country.
However, new research shows that “on a per-student basis, public school staffing levels are hitting all-time highs,” meaning that student-teacher ratios are improving. So, what’s going on?
Schools continued to hire as enrollment declined
Data from around the country shows that school districts largely continued to hire new staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which school enrollment nationwide declined.
Chad Aldeman, policy director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, calls the current surge in school hiring a “rush to hire.” He noted in The74: “It’s a weird time to be having a national conversation about teacher shortages. Thanks in part to the surge of federal relief funds, schools have ambitious hiring plans — but they have been unable to bring on as many people as they would like. As of last month, job openings remain elevated well above normal levels.”
This ongoing hiring has actually helped lower student-teacher ratios across the country, even as overall school enrollment continues to decline during the pandemic. Aldeman uses Virginia as an example of this happening:
And yet, on a per-student basis, schools today employ more teachers and other staff than they’ve ever had.
This may sound surprising or counterintuitive, so let’s use data on my home state of Virginia as an example. In 2018-19, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Virginia public schools employed just under 87,000 teachers. In 2020-21, those same schools employed about 75 more, a gain of 0.1%.
That may not sound like much, but Virginia’s public school enrollment declined by 2.9% over the same time period. By dividing the number of students by the number of teachers, it becomes clear that Virginia districts were able to shrink their student-teacher ratio from 14.8 to 14.4.
He further explains:
Schools today employ many more teachers per student than they did in prior eras, across all subjects and grade levels, including art, music and foreign languages. But over the last decade, most of the staffing increases have come from non-teaching roles. Schools employ more counselors and specialists, like reading coaches; more instructional aides, to work with English learners and students with disabilities; and more vice principals and administrators, to oversee new regulatory and managerial tasks.
After all, as of the latest national figures, local public schools employ about 4% fewer people than they did in February 2020. But those statistics are misleading, because they include part-time staff. But those statistics are misleading because they count all employees including part-time staff. Other survey data suggest that nearly all the job losses in education came from part-time workers. The figures in the chart above use a different calculation known as full-time equivalents. Head count numbers might be germane in certain instances, but the number of equivalents better represents total staff time available.
Perhaps more ideal student-teacher ratios can be considered a silver lining of the ongoing pandemic and school staff hiring challenges. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “The pupil/teacher ratio measures the number of students per teacher. It reflects teacher workload and the availability of teachers’ services to their students. The lower the pupil/ teacher ratio, the higher the availability of teacher services to students.” In essence, a low student-to-teacher ratio can have a positive impact on student achievement, “enhance a child’s test scores and provide lasting academic benefits.”
Public School Review — an independent organization that analyzes and reports on public school data from around the county — estimates that Maryland’s current average public school student-to-teacher ratio is 14:1.