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Top-heavy school staffing. Almost as many nonteaching professionals as teachers

WHEN it comes to schools, Americans are notorious for seeking quick fixes to complex problems. And when they find a practice that needs correcting, they act like puritans. Just haul the miscreant issue - not enough tests, bilingualism, inferior teachers, open classrooms - off to the education stocks for a dose of public ridicule. Shame will prompt reformation and usher in a golden age of learning.

Next in line for the stocks is top-heavy administration, or as it is more popularly called, the blob. (The term comes from a 1950s science-fiction monster movie in which a Jell-O-like creature grows by eating people.)

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The blob reflects concern about the swelling ranks of administrators and education professionals who do everything but teach in a classroom. In 1950, 73 percent of all public school employees were classroom teachers, but in 1985 only 52 percent were.

In 1955, the number of students per administrator was 454. In 1985 the number of students per administrator was 206. The blob had more than doubled.

Besides curriculum specialists and assistants to the superintendent in the central office, candidates for blob status include guidance counselors, librarians, special-education administrators, and school psychologists. Their presence in schools grew by 405 percent between 1960 and 1984.

Why such disproportionate growth between teachers and nonteachers? And more important, are all these nonteachers necessary? Nowhere is the question being put more pointedly than in California. Gov. George Deukmejian does not intend to support the budget increase the state's top educator, Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, says is necessary until growth in the number of administrators is checked.

Later this month, Mr. Honig's office will release the most detailed breakdown of any of the 50 states, identifying just where each education dollar goes, from who puts air in the school bus tire to who makes sure that students know the difference between a comma and a semicolon. The California report promises to be the first of many such state reports.

Nevertheless, it is hard to get a fix on the size of the school bureaucracy, because states seldom count administrators in the same way, says Michael Kirst, professor of education at Stanford University.

``I'm not sure I know what the central administration data means,'' adds Sam Husk, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools. ``Given that schools are more complex today, why should we think the structures that administrate them will get simpler?'' He wonders why critics of increased spending refuse to ask what to him is an obvious question: ``Doesn't it reflect a greater professionalism of schools?''

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You can quickly get into a shell game, when you compare teaching with nonteaching staff, says Steve Frankel, assistant superintendent for testing and accountability in the Montgomery County, Md., public schools. ``Some districts appear to have frills and others are lean. Each district needs to be looked at for the quality and the value added in the education of each child,'' he says.

Where quality in education is found, there's more likely to be a reasonably efficient use of support staff, says Mr. Frankel. The two go hand in hand and are not mutually exclusive, he says.

No matter how ``administrator'' is defined, the managerial layer in schools is no worse, and is often far better, than in other businesses and industries, argues the National School Boards Association in its official magazine.

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the association indicated that public school administrators made up only 6.6 percent of all school employees in 1986. That is compared with a managerial layer of 12.2 percent in higher education, 24 percent in real estate, 50 percent in the funeral industry, and 63 percent in accounting and bookkeeping. Maybe there aren't enough administrators in education, the article suggested.

For principal Robert St. Clair at Hopkins West High School in Minnetonka, Minn., one place to look for explanations of blob growth is the changing roles society has asked schools to play. ``We have kids coming to us looking for parenting as much as teaching,'' he says.

``The schools didn't ask for this responsibility, but we can't do our job for many children if we don't accept it,'' Mr. St. Clair says. Along with the extra caring come layers of administration, he explains.

But he is quick to follow with an oft-heard complaint by many principals: ``The belief that you can supervise the education system by reports has gotten out of hand,'' St. Clair says.

What may be more at issue than the ratio of teachers to nonteachers and the ``precipitous'' decline in the portion of the school dollar going to these teachers are the challenges the management system of education itself must face, says Marc Tucker of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy.

``There is a long line of policy and organizational development of management's role going back to the turn of the century,'' Mr. Tucker says. Over time, schools adopted ``a system for managing blue-collar workers,'' he says. The teacher had to be told what to do and how to do it. That meant more supervisors, and specifically, ``It tended to be men telling women'' what to do. That is no longer the case, he observes. Studies show that excellent secondary schools are characterized by heavy teacher involvement. ``The more mandates there are that come from above, whether state or federal, the greater the need for people to monitor them,'' says Tucker.

Yet education has moved in the direction of requiring professionals with ``a higher degree of autonomy and knowledge,'' he says. If you attract this kind of person, one who all the commissions and reports of the last five years say must be attracted, ``When you tell this kind of person what and how to do their work, they become less, not more, efficient,'' says Tucker.

Private schools, characterized by a leaner administrative structure, have not been immune to the blob in recent years, either, though they have not been nearly as affected as public schools.

``In the '50s and '60s independent schools were headmaster schools,'' says the Rev. Gregory Floyd, director of administrative services at the National Association of Independent Schools. ``Headmasters pretty much called the tune, and they almost always taught at least one class,'' he says.

In the last 10 years, running a school has become more complex, and the need has arisen in many independent schools to have a business manager handle many aspects of school administration, says Mr. Floyd. But ``it is safe to say 80 percent of the headmasters still regularly teach in a classroom,'' he adds.

For public schools, Tucker sees a different management style evolving, one that will gradually eat away at the blob. It makes sense to have a centralized curriculum staff with a centralized curriculum, Tucker says. But if you give more autonomy to teachers as professionals to achieve curriculum goals, then fewer curriculum staff are needed in the central office.

According to Tucker, top management at the district and state level will first have to make academic goals very clear. Then decisions about how to attain those goals should be allowed to move down as close to the line (classroom) as possible. Rewards must be closely tied to the accomplishment of the goals. Then middle management will gradually be ``thinned'' out.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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