by Andrew Curliss, News and Observer, June 7, 2014.
The state Senate’s proposal to cut millions in funding for second- and third-grade teacher assistants is part of a plan from its leaders to reshape elementary education – a plan that now emphasizes paying more money to all teachers over keeping aides who assist teachers in some classrooms.
Senate leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said in an interview that he is relying mainly on research from Tennessee and the United Kingdom that casts doubt on the effectiveness of teacher assistants in helping students learn, while other studiespoint to teacher quality as a more crucial factor in student results.
The Tennessee study, a major project begun in the 1980s and known as Project STAR, found little difference in test scores of children in kindergarten through fourth grade, especially after first grade, when comparing classes with and without teacher assistants.
But it concluded that classes of 13 to 17 children produced substantial improvement, leading to initiatives to reduce class sizes across the country; other research also suggests the lower the class size, the better.
An author of the U.K. studies, the deepest in the world on teacher assistants, said in an interview that his team’s research should not be used to support a move by lawmakers to cut aides, more commonly referred to as TAs.
“We went out of our way to say publicly and to anyone who asked us that getting rid of TAs is actually going to cause schools far more problems than it will solve,” said Rob Webster, a researcher at the University of London’s Institute of Education who has co-authored numerous papers about the research.
Much of the recent work in the U.K. has been on steps to improve how teacher assistants are used in the classrooms.
Berger said the state Senate’s proposal is to make a “dramatic” move on teacher pay now as the top priority for limited education funding. The proposal would provide an average of about 11 percent more to teachers, who would relinquish some job protections, referred to as tenure, by accepting the raises.
The teacher assistant cut amounts to a more than $200 million shift of teacher assistant funding to help pay for the proposed teacher raises, which are projected at about $468 million.
Last year, legislators cut income and corporate taxes while broadening the sales tax. Berger said that raising taxes is not an option and that lawmakers can’t do all they want on education in one swoop.
“The judgment we made was that putting those dollars to teacher pay as opposed to teacher assistants in second grade and third grade was an appropriate decision for us to make,” Berger said.
Berger has expressed a willingness to focus on class size reduction as well. In 2011, the Senate budget hired about 1,100 more teachers for the lowest grades.
A plan to spend about $43 million in the coming year to reduce class sizes in second and third grades has been changed now, as part of the latest proposal, to instead focus on teacher raises. To go further on class sizes, the state would have to spend to hire more teachers – and eventually build more schools, which has been a local government function across North Carolina.
The Senate’s latest plan isn’t final. Lawmakers in the state House will be presenting their version of the state budget this week.
House Speaker Thom Tillis said in an interview that the House plan will cut fewer teacher assistants than the Senate’s. Tillis did not offer more details, but he said increasing teacher pay would still be the focus.
Teacher pay – and the numbers of assistants – is expected to be one of the final negotiating points among Tillis, Berger and Gov. Pat McCrory before the budget is settled. The new budget takes effect July 1.
Aides often in play
Targeting teacher assistants has become an almost annual exercise.
There are large numbers of them – about 23,000 full-time equivalents in the current budget year. Of those, about 16,500 are supported with state funds. Most earnrelatively low pay when compared with the teachers they assist; average pay is $21,258 in the current fiscal year.
Alexis Schauss, director of school business administration for the state Department of Public Instruction, said lawmakers and local governments often have considered cutting TAs when budgets get tight.
“When you start trying to find somewhere to find significant money, it ends up being, basically, your teacher assistants and your noninstructional support, which is kind of your custodians, clerical, that kind of thing,” she said. “That’s why they are often targeted. There’s not much else you can target and get big money.”
In 2005, Democrats in the state Senate crafted a budget that made big cuts to teacher assistants; it aimed at eliminating them in the third grade. It didn’t pass, and later efforts were held off as Democrats controlled the governor’s office.
Republicans, fully in charge since 2012, have cut funding for TAs. Some local school systems increased their local funding and shifted other money to preserve teacher assistants. Many carried out the cuts at the third-grade level and are sharing TAs among classes.
Lawmakers also have offered more flexibility in how the teacher assistant money could be used. DPI data obtained by The News & Observer show the teacher assistant money doesn’t all go to teacher assistants.
Of about $450 million in state money earmarked this budget year for teacher assistants, about $90 million has been transferred by the school systems to other uses. The top one: About $80 million went to pay for teachers in lower grades.
The other $10 million in transferred TA money went for a variety of uses, including $500,000 for transportation in Johnston County and $162,000 in Wake County for materials and supplies, the records show.
Assistants’ best use
Lawmakers and the N.C. Association of Teacher Assistants say up to 7,400 TAs would lose their jobs if the Senate budget is adopted.
“We have to wonder if our legislators in the state Senate have any idea how indispensable teacher assistants are for the operation of our schools and the academic success of our children,” Alicia Perry, the association’s executive director, said in a statement. “While assistants serve our schools in a variety of capacities, their most important job is to teach reading and math in small groups and one-on-one.”
TAs do other things, too. They help at lunches and recesses and perform clerical work, such as preparing worksheets or other handouts. The state association says an assistant’s job includes offering “remedial” instruction for students and other efforts to help “bring them up to grade level.”
William Johnston, the association’s first vice president and a teacher assistant in Bladen County, said TAs spend roughly 60 percent of their time helping students who need “intervention” or are struggling, often in small group settings.
One of the major findings of the British research has been surprising: The more support that pupils receive from TAs, the less progress those students make in school. Without exposure to a teacher, the struggling students fell further behind, the project found.
Webster, whose work examining TAs has spanned more than four years, said the teacher assistants are not to blame.
“Our view is very much that there is far more to gain by having TAs in schools and in classrooms,” he said. “We’ve been careful to say the answer is not to get rid of teaching assistants. It’s to use them more effectively. Schools are not using them in a way that maximizes their potential.”
He said TAs should not offer remedial work to students very often. Instead, the teacher – trained to teach – should be working with the most difficult students.
“We encourage the schools to use the TA in such a way that would allow the teacher to spend more time with the children who struggle,” Webster said. “Rather than just put the TA with the struggling child day upon day upon day, the teacher reverses the situation. You get the teaching assistant to walk around the classroom to make sure everyone is on task for 5 minutes or 10 minutes while the teacher works with this other group of students.”
Smaller class is better
The Tennessee research was widely influential in leading to lower class sizes across the country, including in North Carolina.
The average class size in the low grades in North Carolina is 21 students, though lawmakers provide funding for the lowest grades at one teacher per 18 students in kindergarten and one per 19 students in first through third grades. Teacher assistants, not considered part of the instructional staff, do not factor into class-size ratios.
Project STAR research in Tennessee looked at “regular” classes of 22 to 25 students with and without teacher assistants. It found that the “effect of a regular class with a full-time teacher aide on student outcomes is less powerful and less consistent.”
“There is some benefit to being in a class with a teacher aide in Grade One, but that effect loses significance in other grades,” the project concluded.
That’s a big reason Berger’s plan would keep TAs in kindergarten and first grade.
Berger and others in the Senate acknowledge that the job of a teacher who loses an assistant will change. But he is relying on evidence that “student outcomes” will not falter.
“We want to target our dollars to those things that are shown to improve student growth,” Berger said. “The conclusion that we’ve drawn is a highly qualified teacher at the head of the classroom is the No. 1 thing, and prioritizing our dollars back to the teachers and making sure we have provided them with adequate compensation … will make employment as a teacher much more attractive to more highly qualified teachers.”