By the numbers: How North Carolina's classrooms have changed since Leandro

Some things have changed and some things are about the same.

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West Edgecombe Middle School exterior
Emily Walkenhorst
, WRAL education reporter
Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing examination into how North Carolina’s schools have changed since the Leandro education adequacy lawsuit was filed in 1994, and how schools are handling the goals that resulted from the case.
Since the Leandro education adequacy lawsuit was brought in 1994, not too much has changed in terms of school staffing, teacher pay or student test scores.

Some things have changed. Spending has increased, some new programs have begun and more high school seniors are graduating. Much of the spending increases cover higher salaries and benefits and also more support professionals, such as school psychologists.

Recruiting and retaining teachers — and ensuring they’re prepared to help students succeed — is one of the tenets of Hoke County Board of Education, et. al v. State of North Carolina, a nearly three-decade-old lawsuit over education adequacy known as Leandro for an original plaintiff.

A comprehensive remedial plan agreed to in court — but not fully implemented — calls for higher teacher pay, a study on what pay should be, more support programs for beginning teachers, more teachers who serve in new leadership roles to assist other teachers, expanded prospective teacher scholarships, and increased funding for teachers’ required continuing education.

School support professionals

North Carolina continues to employ too few school psychologists, nurses, counselors and social workers, compared to both nationally recommended ratios and what the state’s documented goals are. However, the state’s biggest improvements in student-to-staff ratios have been for counselors and school psychologists (similar data don’t exist for nurses and social workers.)

In 1994, North Carolina employed one guidance counselor for every 413.7 students. That improved to one for every 348.9 students in 2020. The recommended ratio is one for every 250 students. In 1994, North Carolina employed one school psychologist for every 2,365.4 students. That improved to one for every 1,833.5 students in 2020. The recommended ratio is one for every 500 students.

Support personnel are critical to helping support both teachers and students and improve school environments, said Helen Ladd, a professor emeritus at Duke University. Environments are key to teacher retention, Ladd said.


Student-to-teacher ratios have marginally improved in North Carolina. After improving from one teacher for every 16.4 students in 1994 to one teacher for every 14.4 students in 2009, the ratio was one teacher for every 15.1 students in 2020 — the last time state funding was adjusted for enrollment before a two-year “hold harmless” provision during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, ratios are likely worse than data show, cautions Eric Houck, associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Many teachers aren’t in front of the classroom and may work out of district offices on things like curriculum. They indirectly serve students and instruction and don’t actually have any students of their own, Houck said.

Teaching assistants

Overall classroom staff-to-student ratios (teachers and teaching assistants) haven’t changed.

In 1994, one teacher or teaching assistant existed for every 12.4 students. Ratios reduced for years closer to one teacher or teaching assistant for every 11 students before rising again after the Great Recession.

In 2020, North Carolina’s public schools had one teacher or teaching assistant for every 12.3 students, as counties began picking up more of the tab when the state reduced its funding for teaching assistants.

The North Carolina General Assembly cut funding earmarked for instructional assistants during the Great Recession and then again in 2015, when they reduced class sizes for kindergarten through third grades. At the time, little research had been done examining whether teaching assistants make a difference academically. One study, done in Tennessee in 2001, found they did not. But several studies – including one by Duke University examining the state, specifically – conducted since the cut have shown teaching assistants make a positive impact on student learning.

The number of instructional assistants the state provides on its own is less than half of what it used to be. Many school systems have somewhat made up for that difference by using other state funds – such as disadvantaged student supplemental funding – to hire instructional assistants. But the number of instructional assistants has still declined from more than 22,000 funded by the state to less than 16,000. That’s even lower than the number the state funded when the Leandro lawsuit was filed – more than 17,000. Federal and local funding has dropped for teacher assistants, as well, though less dramatically.

Overall staff

Overall school staff hasn’t changed much, either.

In 1994, North Carolina’s public schools had one staff member for every 8.5 students. As with classroom staff, that improved just somewhat for years until the Great Recession. In 2020, North Carolina public schools had one staff member for every 8.3 students.

Ratios have improved for psychologists and guidance counselors but worsened for librarians, clerical and secretarial workers, service workers, skilled workers and workers whose positions don’t require skills training. Often, teaching assistants now double as bus drivers in school systems throughout the state or are asked to cover empty classrooms, needed cafeteria shifts or even custodial work.

Teacher credentials

North Carolina has altered how it measures teacher experience since 1994. But until 2018, it tracked teachers’ educational attainment.

From 1995 to 2018, the educational attainment of teachers has declined. (Data from 1994, maintained on paper documents and scans of those paper documents, is illegible.)

Experts say the decline is in part because of incentives; teachers no longer are eligible for higher pay for having a master’s degree.

In 1995, 61% of teachers (nearly 50,000 teachers) had a bachelor’s degree as their maximum educational attainment, and 34.6% of teachers (just above 28,000 teachers) had a master’s degree as their maximum educational attainment. In 2018, 72.4% of teachers (just above 68,000 teachers) had a bachelor’s degree as their maximum educational attainment and 27% of teachers (just above 25,000 teachers) had a master’s degree as their maximum educational attainment.

Some research suggests a master’s degree doesn’t correlate with higher student test scores, though some research has found they correlate with improved student attendance or correlate with improved test scores when the degree is specialized for the teacher’s field, such as a math teaching degree for a math teacher.

Meanwhile, higher pay is still offered for teachers with National Board of Professional Teaching Standards certification. The pay raise is equal to 12% of a teacher’s base state salary. Certification must be renewed every five years.

The state no longer pays for teachers to pursue certification, though certification is less expensive than a master’s degree — costing $1,900 initially (and $475 for every component that must be retaken) and $570 every five years to maintain it. Obtaining certification takes more than a year and maintaining it requires less examination and takes between 34 hours and 60 hours, according to the board.

North Carolina has long led the nation in nationally certified teachers, with more than 23,000 obtaining certification since 1987. However, data show the number of active certified teachers is North Carolina is declining.

Just 10,083 of the state’s traditional pubic school teachers were nationally certified during the 2020-21 school year, the latest year for which data are available.

That’s down from 15,334 teachers during the 2011-12 school year and now mirrors where the state was at in 2007. Data only go back to 2006, when 7,976 teachers were nationally certified.

Research has been mixed on the effect of board certification on student achievement. Some has found no or slim effects on performance and that nationally certified teachers are less likely to work in schools with more lower-income, minority or low-performing students. One study suggested nationally certified teachers have higher retention rates than teachers who are not nationally certified.
About this article
This article was funded with help from the Education Writers Association Fellowship program. For this story and others in the Leandro project, WRAL News reviewed thousands of pages of state documents dating back to 1994, including legal proceedings, statistical profiles, allotment policies and legislation. The station analyzed millions of data points included in the state’s school report card and allotment datasets and various federal datasets. It created its own datasets from paper records too old to be included in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s readily available electronic datasets.