By RICK DOCKSAI, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Maryland's overall student-teacher ratio has improved significantly over the last 10 years, but the state still hovers in the middle of the pack when ranked against other states during that period, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
The number of students per teacher in an average classroom in the state has fallen from 16.8 in 1995 to 16.3 in 2000. It fell even more sharply to 15.2 in 2005, the years during which the Thornton school-funding plan was put into effect.
The post-2000 improvement in student-teacher ratios shows up in the state's overall ranking: After falling from 27th to 37th place between 1995 and 2000, the state bounced back to 32nd place in 2005.
Experts say there is a simple explanation for the shift: The state keeps hiring teachers while the growth in the student population has slowed since 2000.
"We had a bubble (in student enrollment) that came through the system a couple years ago. It fell off a little bit after that," said Ronald Peiffer, deputy superintendent of the Maryland State Department of Education.
The federal data showed that the state teacher population grew 8 percent between 2000 and 2005 while the state student population grew only 1.5 percent. The number of students grew faster than the number of teachers in only four districts—Carroll, Cecil, Talbot and Washington counties.
Timothy Mennuti, president of the Anne Arundel County Teachers Association, hailed the improvement in student-teacher ratios, saying it is a change that helps everyone.
"All of the research shows you do better with students in smaller settings," he said.
Mennuti attributed the teacher population growth to the 2002 Bridge to Excellence Act—better known as the Thornton plan—a state law that increased state funding to local school systems. Mennuti said the funds enable many districts to raise their teacher salaries and benefits, and thus attract more new teachers.
"It's been very, very helpful," he said.
That is particularly true where school districts have been able to assign the additional teachers to "at-risk" students, he said. Schools with low reading assessment scores, for example, might get more reading specialists.
"What you're seeing is an attempt by school boards to catch up and address some of their own long-term problems," Mennuti said.
Frederick County's 13 percent teacher growth was mostly in special education teachers and English Language Learners teachers, said Gary Brennan, president of the Frederick County Teachers Association.
"The goal . . . was to try to address caseload, so that they had more time with smaller numbers of kids," he said.
The Thornton plan gave Anne Arundel County and 12 other counties extra funds to help with hiring and retention costs. Anne Arundel's teacher population grew 10 percent from 2000 to 2005, after growing a mere 4 percent from 1995 to 2000.
Only two of the 13 Thornton school districts—Baltimore City and Kent County—saw their teacher populations decrease in the years after Thornton.
But more teachers does not necessarily mean better ones, cautioned Jeremy Ayers, policy associate for national research group Alliance for Excellent Education. Ayers said that more hiring masks a bigger problem of teacher turnover.
"We have a hole but we keep filling it and keep losing those teachers, so we have a revolving door," he said.
The alliance estimates that Maryland spends $114 million a year training teachers who retire or move out of state.
Ayers said this means that while students may have more teachers now, they are also more likely to have teachers who just entered the profession.
"They're more likely to have inexperienced teachers. They're more likely to have uncertified teachers. They're more likely to have teachers that didn't major in their subject area," he said.
One way to address that problem would be to use Thornton money not just for hiring, but for higher salaries that keep teachers in the classroom once they get there, said Valerie Arch, president of the Allegany County Teachers Association.
"We've been able to negotiate the salaries that keep qualified teachers in the profession," Arch said.
Regardless, said Mennuti, more funds and more teachers have to be seen as positive developments.
"They (school officials) could take a hard look for a change for something they need and, instead of it being a wish-list item, the chances are greater that they will get it," he said.
Despite a sharp improvement in student-teacher rations in Maryland schools in the past decade, the state has only managed to keep pace with other states, going from 27th place to 32nd place during that period. The improvement in Maryland has been attributed to a steady rise in teacher hiring while the student population has slowed or fallen in some counties.