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Motherhood, apple pie, and school staffing

By Norman Poltenson


Growing up, I was taught that two things were sacrosanct — motherhood and apple pie. Education has added a third item: ever expanding, K-12 public-school staffing.

In 1950, I was in the seventh grade when the clamor began to increase the number of teachers and reduce the ratio of pupils to teachers. The teaching “professionals” convinced us that more teachers and smaller classes would generate better educated students, who would then go on to compete in a global economy.

So, “How are we doing?” to borrow a phrase from former New York City mayor Ed Koch. Six decades later, the number of K-12 students in the U.S. increased 96 percent. Full-time school employees (FTEs) increased 386 percent, a four-fold surge. Of that total, teachers saw a 252 percent increase, while non-teaching staff — administrators, support staff, clerical staff, etc. — exploded by 702 percent. The national pattern held true in 48 states, including nine that actually experienced a decline in student enrollment. In just the last two decades, New York State K-12, public-school enrollment increased only 3.7 percent while total staff rose 26.5 percent.

The corollary of hiring more public-school staff was a 60-year decline from 19.3 students per public-school employee to 7.8 students per public-school employee. In the case of the pupil-teacher ratio, the numbers dropped from 27.5 to 1 in 1950 to 15.4 to 1 in 2009.

Was there a return on the investment for taxpayers and for the country?

In 2009, a sample of K-12 students from 34 countries, which formed the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) along with 31 other nations and provinces, took the international exam called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment). The U.S. Department of Education summarized the math scores: 17 countries had higher average scores, while five had lower scores. Eleven others had scores similar to U.S. students.

Our mediocre performance was achieved even though the U.S. spent more money per K-12 student than all but two other OECD countries.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is another yardstick for measuring student performance. The exams are given on various subjects when the students are 9, 13, and 17 years of age. Since 1992, reading scores have declined slightly while math scores have remained flat.

U.S. public high-school graduation rates have declined for the past three decades with only a recent, slight uptick. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, on-time, public high-school graduation rates have remained below 75 percent for the past 20 years. The rate has actually declined over a 40-year span, and the gap between minority and majority graduation rates have not converged at all over the last 35 years. Also, the decline of graduation rates is growing among young males, exacerbating a corresponding gender gap in college attendance with increasing numbers of women attending colleges and universities.

At this point, defenders of school staffing will respond that much of the problem is tied to federal legislation, specifically No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB did require reporting and testing, but the rate of hiring since the program’s inception has only slowed to the point where teacher and non-teacher hiring are even. “Kids are harder to teach today,” is the next defense. Actually, today’s parents, on the whole, are more affluent, better educated, and have smaller families than when I went to public school, all predictors of improved student achievement that more than offsets the growth of family breakdown.

What’s missing in this rush to drive up the quantity of teachers and bureaucrats is a concern for quality. You don’t have to be a professional educator to recognize that teacher effectiveness is the most critical component in education. This relentless focus on putting teachers in the classroom hasn’t been accompanied by a concern to hire and retain outstanding teachers. Moreover, the explosion of bureaucracy has hampered teacher performance rather than enhanced it.

So who has benefitted from six decades of rising school staffing? Clearly the unions have, by increasing their membership and income. Parents of children with special needs have undoubtedly benefitted from programs and personal attention. But the taxpayers and the commonweal have not reaped a reward from the massive investment. Our graduates, on the whole, are not better educated than they were in 1950 and not competitive with OECD countries, which on average, spend 72 percent less of their operating budgets on non-teaching staff while pumping nearly 10 percent more money directly into the classroom.

Only a monopoly can operate for six decades, spending ever-increasing sums without any tangible return. A 2012 poll by the Fordham Institute found that 69 percent of the adults surveyed favored a reduction in the number of bureaucrats in the public school and 73 percent of respondents would prefer larger classes for their children if taught by an effective teacher.

It seems that the public is well ahead of the politicians. Change, however, will only come when the public-school monopoly is broken and parents have real choice. Then we can return to what’s truly sacred — motherhood and apple pie.


Norman Poltenson is publisher of The Mohawk Valley Business Journal. Contact him at



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