Spending Surge on ‘Non-Instructional’ Staff?

The recent Milton Friedman Foundation report makes it sound like school districts are wasting taxpayer money on central office staff that have nothing to do with classroom instruction. They do provide data to back up their claim, but if you dive deeper into the same data you see a much different picture.

The report finds that between 1992 and 2009 the number of administrators and other district staff increased by 46 percent while student enrollment increased just 17 percent. However, such increases do not mean funds were not going towards classroom instruction. A deeper look into the numbers shows a much different picture. In fact, the data shows that the greatest increases in administrative jobs came from the increase in the number of instructional coordinators and instructional aids. For these two groups between 1992 and 2009 their numbers grew 143 percent and 72 percent respectively. Although such employees are considered administrators they certainly impact classroom instruction.

Even so, the report makes the all too often repeated claim that even with the increased support there is no evidence that student achievement has improved. Again, they cherry picked data in an attempt to back up their claim. For instance they cite a study from James Heckman that found that graduation rates peaked in the early 1970’s. However, the study was conducted before the recent dramatic increases in graduation rates our nation’s high schools have made. As a matter of fact:

  • The estimated national on-time graduation rate improved from 68.8 percent to 73.4 percent between 2007 and 2009.
    • The actual high school graduation rate is really closer to 80 percent when students who take longer than four years to graduate are counted as well.
  • According to Education Week, the number of states with an estimated on-time graduate rate of at least 70 percent increased from just 26 states in 1999 to 40 in 2009.

The report also cites long-term NAEP scores that shows that scores for 17-year-olds have not changed between 1992 and 2008. However, long-term NAEP is not nearly as accurate a tool to evaluate the achievement gains of our nation’s schools over this time period. Main NAEP would be a much more accurate measure which showed significant gains in both math and reading during this time period. For example:


  • At the 4th grade level the percent of students reaching the proficiency benchmark more than tripled from 13 percent to 40 percent since 1990.
  • More than twice as many 8th graders scored proficient on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 2011 (35%) than in 1990 (15%).


  • More than twice as many black 4th graders scored proficient on NAEP in 2011 (17%) than in 1992 (8%).
  • At the 8th grade level the percent of student reaching the proficiency benchmark increased by 6 percentage points for both black and Hispanic students.

The U.S. performance on international assessments showed similar gains. Such as:


  • The U.S. is among the world leaders in math gains between 1995 and 2007.
    • U.S. 8th graders made similar gains (16 points) as high achieving Korea (17) and made much greater gains than both Japan (-11) and Singapore (-16)
    • Only two countries (Columbia and Lithuania) made greater gains during this time period.
    • U.S. 4th graders (11 points) made greater gains than Japan (1) as well.


  • U.S. 8th graders made significant gains between 1995 and 2007
    • Only 3 countries made significantly greater gains than the U.S.
      • U.S. 8th graders (7) made greater gains than Singapore (-13) and Japan (-1) and similar gains as Korea (7).

While indeed the number of administrators has increased significantly between 1992 and 2009, student achievement has increased dramatically as well. During this time period school districts have invested heavily in improving classroom instruction by hiring instructional coordinators and instructional aids to support teachers with their instructional needs. So to claim that districts are simply swelling their central office staffs with ‘non-instructional’ staff would not be supported by the facts.— Jim Hull

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