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The effects of gutting classroom TAs

In case you missed it, WRAL’s Tyler Dukes had a good story this weekend sorting through whether or not teacher assistants have any positive effect at all in the classroom and whether the Senate’s proposal to cut 80 percent of TA jobs over the upcoming biennium is the state’s largest layoff in history.

The conclusion? Like most things, it’s complicated.

Decades-old research suggests TAs don’t help students in grades K-3 improve academically — but Michael Maher, a professor at NC State University, said it’s really hard to make that determination.

“Because students enter early grades at different levels of preparation, assistants typically allow teachers to provide instruction on a more individual level depending on a students’ needs.

“You can really, within the context of your classroom, have students working at different levels,” Maher said. “If I’m a single teacher, it’s much harder to do that.”

NC Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon spoke with Alamance-Burlington Schools’ chief Dr. Bill Harrison (who is also a former chair of the State Board of Education) this past weekend, who said in his experience TAs play a critical role in making sure students succeed—particularly for those students who have special needs or are English language learners.

“Probably in 90 percent of our elementary classrooms I visit I have to ask the principal which one is the teacher and which one is the teacher assistant,” said Harrison, who was away from the classroom for more than five years as he served on the State Board of Ed and has observed a big change in the role of the TA during that time.

“That additional help has become critical,” added Harrison.

(Click above to listen to Fitzsimon interview Dr. Harrison on News & Views)

Senate lawmakers want to take some of the money for TAs to reduce class sizes — an idea that in theory lots of folks seem to support—but making the jump from TAs to smaller classes at the end of the school year, or even after the school year begins, may prove to be a logistical nightmare.

“We don’t have the classroom space to reduce class size, plus at that time of the year I don’t think we’ll be able to find the teachers that we need,” said Harrison.

As for whether or not stripping classrooms of TAs to the tune of 8,500+ jobs over two years amounts to the state’s largest layoff in history — well, that’s a little unclear, but it seems to rank up there according to the WRAL report.

DPI’s chief financial officer Philip Price told WRAL that kind of comparison isn’t useful, however, when you consider the ballooning student enrollment the state is dealing with.

Since the 2008-09 academic year, the state has seen 43,749 more students enroll in public schools that have seen several years of cuts. In that period, North Carolina Association of Teacher Assistants Secretary Melinda Zarate said, the state lost 7,000 teacher assistants.

“What’s happened is a dramatic reduction in the adults in the school building,” Price said. “This is just adding to a pretty heinous situation.”

Click here to read WRAL’s full report on teacher assistants.

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