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Fast Stats 2014 October: Individualized Learning
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Trends in Individualized Learning

FastStats by: Jeffrey Mitchell, Currey Ingram Academy
Published: October 2014


This FastStats explores whether independent schools have become more personalized and individualized in recent years. An objective and powerful way to answer this question is to assess staffing trends. In short, do we have more staff members per student; thus, all other things being equal, more individual attention? If we do, what staffing categories have seen increases? To make the comparisons proposed, data on enrollment and staffing was obtained from the NAIS DASL database. 

Figure 1 shows the 20-year trend for median enrollment in both NAIS and SAIS schools. For NAIS schools, the median enrollment has increased 15% from 340 to 394 students. Similarly, in SAIS schools median enrollment has also increased about 15% from 536 to 617 students. Note that SAIS schools have consistently enrolled about 15% more students than NAIS schools.

Figure 2 illustrates that the number of overall staff per 500 students increased in both NAIS and SAIS. In 1993-1994, NAIS schools had approximately 107 staff members per 500 students and SAIS schools had approximately 76 staff members per 500 students. By 2013-2014, NAIS increased by 9% to 117 and SAIS increased by 32% to 100. Although SAIS has had a dramatically larger increase, SAIS schools still have 17 fewer staff members per 500 students. 

With Figure 3, the process of trying to pinpoint the staffing gains illustrated in Figure 2 begins.  Teaching faculty will be looked at first. Twenty years ago NAIS schools employed about 54 FTE teachers per 500 students and SAIS employed about 45. Today the numbers are 58 and 54 per 500 respectively, representing increases of 7% for NAIS and 20% for SAIS. Clearly there are more teachers per student across NAIS and although SAIS still lags behind NAIS as a whole, the data indicate that dramatic gains have been made in this category in the past 20 years in SAIS schools.

Figure 4 presents data on a category called instructional support staff. This is personnel that aids the instructional process but may not have the formal designation of teacher. In 1993-1994, the typical NAIS school had approximately six FTE positions of this type. By 2013-2014, there were approximately nine such positions, a 50% increase. With SAIS there were four of these positions twenty years ago, and now there are about seven, a 67% increase. Clearly, schools are augmenting their programs using instructional support staff.

Figure 5 shows the data for non-instructional support staff. For NAIS, there are fewer employees in this category than there were 20 years ago; although, if you look closely at the trend line, it has only been since 2008-2009 that the downward trend occurred. For SAIS, there has been a modest increase from 17 to 18 per 500 students in this category. In short, there has not been a lot of growth in this category.

Figure 6 shows the data for the category administrators. The graph shows a clear upward trend. For NAIS, there were approximately 11 FTE administrators per 500 students in 1993-1994. By 2013-2014, there were about 16.5, an increase of 50%. For SAIS, there were approximately eight administrators 20 years ago and now there are over 11 per 500 students, a 40% increase. From my experience, this result might be explained by the increasing numbers of administrators in traditional independent school roles e.g., the business and advancement offices and the proliferation of relatively new administrative positions in independent schools e.g., diversity, technology, communication and marketing, counseling, global education, learning centers, etc.

The data lead to some interesting possible interpretations. There’s no doubt that independent schools are employing more people per student. Not just more people because of growth but more people per student. Gains were shown in practically all staffing categories. It seems reasonable to conclude that if staffing per student is a proxy of trends to individualize and personalize independent schools, then there’s no doubt we have made great gains. Especially encouraging are the numbers representing faculty and instructional staff. I would also include administrators; especially if those gains are indicative of value added initiatives that touch students directly like diversity, technology, global education and learning center programs. 

For SAIS, compared to NAIS as a whole, the data clearly show two findings: that SAIS schools have fewer staff members per student but the gaps in all categories have decreased dramatically in the past 20. 

This analysis, turned on its head, raises some interesting questions about independent school finances over the past 20 years. Without question, individual attention is a core principle in all of our schools. It’s perhaps the key differentiator. It is also a primary driver of operating expenses. The fewer students per staff member we have, the more it costs. The clear and powerful trends represented in this data that show our commitment to individual attention are the same clear and powerful trends that help explain why the median tuition in NAIS schools has increased 260% from $8,350 to $21,670 and in SAIS schools 286% from $6,162 to $17,600. Our primary operating expense, by far, is compensation and we are compensating relatively more staff members than we did 20 years ago. The good news for SAIS schools in this regard is that, although the data shows we have larger ratios in most categories, this could also mean we are leaner financially. 

The trend towards more individualized learning environments, as reflected by staff to student comparisons, is an excellent example of the free market at work. Fierce competition for students has led to increased differentiation and individualization in schools and because of the relative health, despite some blips, of our economy the students have come and the parents have paid the tuition.

Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell is the Head of School at Currey Ingram Academy in Brentwood, TN. He can be reached via email at


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