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State's Teacher-Pupil Ratios Lag, Study Says

Report finds that, taking into account the size of student populations, California has 74% as many instructors as other states.

October 29, 2003|Doug Smith | Times Staff Writer

Even as they aim to exceed the national average on standardized tests, California schools have far fewer teachers per 1,000 students than the rest of the country, a study released Tuesday concluded.

The state has 74% of the teachers that other states do, considering the size of its student population.

"Despite the high expectations for them, California schools have relatively modest resources," the report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute found. The disparity results from a combination of factors: slightly lower spending on education, a higher percentage of school-age children and higher salaries, the researchers found.

Lack of coordination between the two agencies that share responsibility for education also contributes to the imbalance, they said.

Currently, the state Board of Education sets academic standards and the Legislature sets the education budget. Neither is required to consult the other.

"The board may set 'world-class standards,' as it claims to have done, without asking what resources would be necessary to achieve those standards," the report said.

Heather Rose, research fellow for the San Francisco-based research group, said the study did not attempt to determine the level of spending that would be needed to support the current academic goals. Other research into the relation between spending and educational attainment has been inconclusive, she said.

"It's not that people think resources don't matter," Rose said. "It's hard to find the direct link between a teacher and the additional test score that a teacher could bring. There isn't a mathematical equation that links spending to outcome."

Rather than recommending a spending target, the researchers endorsed the mission of a state commission created by the Legislature in 2002 to define the resources needed at each school to ensure that most students reach the state standards.

Interim Executive Director Mary Weaver said the 13-member Quality Education Commission -- funded entirely by two private foundations -- includes teachers, administrators, community groups and a former legislator. It is set to begin deliberations in January and has a year to make its recommendations. Its goal is to set ideal levels of teachers, administrators, textbooks and other educational supplies for elementary, middle and high schools. In future years, it will test those standards in schools, Weaver said.

That will help the state promote a more realistic spending debate, Rose of the Public Policy Institute said.

"Judging those costs and the benefits of achieving these standards, the Legislature may decide that the taxpayers of California cannot afford them," the report said.

The institute's study, "High Expectations, Modest Means: The Challenge Facing California's Public Schools," is the first of three reports being prepared by the team of four researchers. It examines the state's academic standards, resources and funding mechanisms.

Later reports will present the findings of interviews, site visits and budget simulations conducted at those schools. The research is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The state's high expectations arise from a school accountability program that sets target performance for standardized tests. Progress toward that goal is measured on an index ranging from 200 to 1,000. A score of 800 on the index has been established as the goal for all California schools.

A score of 800 is an ambitious goal -- "the equivalent to 70% of a school's student body exceeding the median performance of students throughout the country," the report said.

Since the inception of the Academic Performance Index in 1999, California schools have made steady, though not spectacular, progress. The latest results, released last week, showed greater gains by high schools than in past years, while elementary schools continued an upward trend.

The higher scores on tests geared to the state standards, however, were tempered by students' less-than-stellar performance on national tests and evidence that vast numbers of California's public school students are not proficient in grade-level reading and math.

The report notes that while most schools have improved their scores, few schools at any level exceed the statewide goal, and that low-scoring schools would have to sustain their gains for many years to meet it.

Along with its emphasis on accountability, California had increased its spending on education in recent years up to the onset of the 2001 recession. Starting from near the bottom among the 50 states, California climbed to about average in per-pupil spending.

According to the study, per capita spending on education leveled off about 2% below the national average.

Meanwhile, the state has 8% more school-age children per capita than the nation as a whole, so the money is spread thinner.

Compounding the problem of lower spending, California's high standard of living means teachers are paid more, meaning fewer can be hired.

All these factors mean the state provides 25% fewer teachers than the rest of the nation, Rose said.

According to the report, California's ratio of instructional aides to 1,000 students is about the same percentage of the nation's as is the teacher-pupil ratio; for administrators it is slightly lower.

California lags far behind in counselors, 46%; librarians, 38%; and other support, 56%.

It led the nation slightly in the category of administrative support.

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Times staff writer Duke Helfand contributed to this report.

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