Agency of Education recommends minimum student-teacher ratios for schools

Vemront education finance manager Brad James explains a new student-staff ratio report to lawmakers. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Vermont education finance manager Brad James explains a new student-staff ratio report to lawmakers. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

A first-of-its-kind look at student-staff ratios across grade levels in Vermont offers some insights into education costs, and also raises plenty of questions. Namely: what to do with all the information.

The report from the Agency of Education recommends minimum course sizes across grade levels for four main learning categories: English, math, science and social studies. Up to eighth grade, the smallest class sizes should be 10 students at schools of 150 children or more; at schools with fewer students, classes should consist of no less than five children, the report says. The minimum class size would be 10 for schools with grades 5-8, or any school up to 12th grade.

Vermont has the lowest ratio in the nation, with an average student-to-teacher ratio of 9.4 to 1, according to a 2013 report from the National Education Association. The national average is 16 to 1. Vermont also has the second highest average spending per pupil rate, $18,571, in the country. (New York State is No. 1.)

The report was presented Friday morning to the House Ways & Means Committee, as required by Act 60 of 2013.

The report, which includes separate ratios of students to teachers, school staff and administrators, reaffirmed some conventional wisdom about Vermont education: There are a “wicked” lot of small schools, as Rep. Jeffrey Wilson, D-Manchester, put it.

That translates into small class sizes typically, which in turn tends to drive up the cost of education. Brad James, AOE’s education finance manager, said in an interview after his presentation that staffing costs — salaries and compensation — typically comprise about 70 percent to 80 percent of school budgets.

James said he expected the data would show a preponderance of a small classes, but he was surprised by the degree to which that proved true: By far, he found, the smallest schools account for the most courses with the fewest students.

Observations to actions

Committee members appeared nowhere near ready Friday morning to formulate legislation based on the recommendations.

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the committee, said it was helpful to know that new Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe signed off on the report. She is looking forward to hearing Gov. Peter Shumlin’s thoughts on the matter.

Reps. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, Janet Ancel, D-Calais, and Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, listen to a presentation on student-staff ratios in Vermont public schools. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Reps. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, Janet Ancel, D-Calais, and Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock, listen to a presentation on student-staff ratios in Vermont public schools. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Whatever the committee decides, James suggested they delay implementation for one year to conform to the calendar cycle of school budgets. Rather than issue tax penalties for non-compliance in 2016-17, James said data should be collected first to inform tax penalty proposals the following year.

James also noted Vermont’s unique struggle with class size. Education finance experts who spoke at a related symposium earlier in January  said they had never encountered another state struggling to establish a minimum number of students per course. Most places debate a cap to set a maximum class size, James said.

His recommendations to that end are based more on existing practices than academically proven “best practices,” James said. The data work alone to produce the ratio report was so intensive that he did not have time to conduct research into optimum class size.

James asked lawmakers to write more specific data reporting requirements into state law.

The state’s Agency of Education has been gathering more detailed data from schools in recent years to comply with both federal regulations and state mandates. But James said reporting remains inconsistent, and without more reliable data, it will be hard to answer some of the questions lawmakers ask in the course of crafting education policy.

He also acknowledged that the data points in the ratio report — and at the heart of his recommendations — are not tied to performance outcomes. Correlating ratio and outcome data would constitute months more work, he said. For the time being, James simply based his recommendations on the ratios found in a majority of courses.

The tax incentives would operate on a one-time basis, encouraging schools with average course sizes below the minimum to increase their ratios. The incentives would only kick in for the year that threshold is crossed — not every year that minimum ratios are exceeded.

Remaining questions

Several questions and hurdles remain before lawmakers will likely be ready to act on the recommendations.

As an example of the “intangibles” the data don’t account for, James asked lawmakers to consider a school with low enrollment in one grade or one course during one year. An influx of students may be seen coming down the pike, he said. In that case, it may not make sense to lay off a teacher for just one year, only to rehire or start a new search for the position 12 months later, he suggested.

Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, wants to remove from the dataset classes that are necessarily below recommended minimums — for example, special education or courses to teach English as a second language.

Ancel also said she’d also like to get a better sense of the specific impact districts would feel if any of the recommendations were adopted.

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  • Craig Kneeland

    It’ same sad day when an accountant is making a major presentation on student/teacher ratios in our classrooms. Anyone visiting Vermont classrooms will see that our teachers are doing their very best with limited resources. For instance, most schools do not have adequate science labs. Teachers often provide the lab experience with their own resources in the limited confines of their un equipped classroom. Our VT students deserve our consideration of educational quality issues. With primary considerations about quality will come proper classroom ratios.

    • Curtis Sinclair

      The point is that if they hired fewer teachers and had a bit higher student to teacher ratio there would be more money for other things. Then the teachers wouldn’t have to use their own resources in an unequipped classroom.

    • Wendy wilton

      The reason that so many schools lack resources despite what we spend per student is the ‘small school’ problem…when schools are too small, the student:teacher ratio is low and the costs are much higher per student just to provide instruction…no extra money for the additional resources that are needed to provide a 21st century education. Schools also need to look at student:staff ratios, not just the student:teacher ratio.
      I recommended to the senate education committee 2 years ago that the state consolidate the governance of schools to 16 districts based on the tech center regions, mandate an increase in student:teacher ratio to at least 13:1 regionally, and allow public school choice within the regions. Regional governance could make the smart decisions about what schools to consolidate, if needed, and what schools, though small, would remain as stand-alone due to geography, etc…
      These recommendations would save over $100 million in the Ed fund by my estimation and would bring these decisions to a regional level to work out. Further we would be saving money in school administration and reduce the staffing through retirements, rather than lay offs. Public school choice would allow the middle school and high school instruction to become specialized thereby utilizing technology resources in a very efficient way and providing schools of excellence in choice subject matter (i.e. A high school in the region that put emphasis on performance art or math/science).
      It’s time to think out of the box on education reform, which will also lead to better use of resources. I think these ideas are worth exploring. Our kids deserve it and our taxpayers need relief if they are expected to continue to support education so generously.

      • Tony Elliott

        Good points. The idea that students can choose their school within the region is a good move. We see that working very well in the middle schools in our town (Westminster) where we do not have a designated middle school. Students have several choices and usually choose based on interests and capabilities. It makes for very healthy schools when choice is available. I’d like to see choice available beyond the region if the student can make their own transportation arrangements. When it comes to student/teacher ratios, under 1:15 is just too small, but don’t throw out the baby with the bath water, some of these small schools actually perform better than the larger ones and cost less per pupil to boot!

      • Craig Kneeland

        Many of our limited resources occur in the important early years of school. It would be irresponsible to bus young children to regional centers. They already spend too much time in mindless commuting. I attended a small VT school in the 50’s. Regional high schools evolved after my graduation. Those centers reduced efficiency and did little to improve educational quality.

  • Harriet E. Cady

    When I think of my education at Hardwick Academy in the 50’s I think of Ms. Kinney, Ms. Robb and all the teachers who had 22 to 25 students per class and how well we learned our lessons. Even today I go back to some of the tricks we were taught to remember multiplication tables. Why can’t a school teacher of today teach as well and believe me the learning disabled they were able to teach with NO special Education money?

    • Tim Smith

      Ms. Kinney was probably not a member of the NEA. I’m willing to bet. Maybe I’m wrong though.

  • Sally Goss

    I also grew up in the 60’s and we had 25 students in our class with one teacher. I can’t believe we need one teacher for every 10 students. That’s ridiculous!

  • Frank Davis

    The city mouse has a solution for the country mouse, once again. City parents get upset if the neighborhood school is to be closed. How about if the only school within 30 square miles must close to save money? Small towns have no political clout however. Of course it is possible to increase class sizes and reduce costs. Anyone who can do long division and has access to the information from small schools and small towns would conclude that closing those schools and consolidating would achieve the desired fiscal result. However have the bean counters asked a parent if an hour or two ride to and from school, starting with a five, six or seven year old standing in the dark, by the side of a rural road, on a cold January morning is worth the reduction in costs. Regional high school students in districts that are already consolidated do not see daylight at home for the winter months. And that’s cost effective for older students. Although they also suffer from the hours of sitting and lack of opportunity to be active.