Cutting teacher assistants defies logic

Last week the N.C. Senate approved a budget that includes a $57.5 million cut to teacher assistant funding. This would eliminate 5,200 teacher assistant positions in the next school year and more than 8,500 teacher assistants over the next two years. With 7,000 fewer teacher assistants in classrooms today compared with the 2008-2009 school year – and nearly 50,000 more students – the Senate budget would eliminate roughly a third of all teacher assistants working in North Carolina today.

It is instructive to understand how teacher assistants came about in the first place. The position was first created and funded by the state as part of the 1975 Primary Reading Program. The goal of the program was to improve literacy among children in early grades. My mother was among the first group of teacher assistants hired in the state.

Significantly improved student achievement scores followed. It makes sense – adding another instructor immediately cut the ratio of student-to-educator in half, which gave more time for individualized attention to struggling students.

North Carolina was the first state in the country with a teacher and a teacher assistant in every classroom in kindergarten through third grade. North Carolina also implemented the nation’s first statewide full-day kindergarten around the same time. These kinds of investments began to cement North Carolina’s image nationally as a leader in public education at all levels, a brand that underpinned decades of economic growth in our state.

Senate leaders stated they cut teacher assistant positions in order to fund class-size reduction in grades K-3. Certainly that’s a laudable goal. But with the state’s crumbling teacher pipeline, steep declines in enrollment at all our university teacher prep programs and historically high teacher turnover, it is hard to imagine how public schools could possibly hire 4,000 qualified K-3 teachers within a year on top of the 10,000 new teachers they already must hire annually just to fill vacancies. And with some schools already converting fields and playgrounds to mobile classroom parking lots, significant new spending by local school systems and county governments would be required for these proposed smaller classes to actually have a place to meet.

Last year, Durham-based MetaMetrics conducted an analysis using the Public School Forum’s “Roadmap of Need” data. They wanted to see what correlations could be found between the 19 different indicators of youth “wellness” we track and future college and career readiness. MetaMetrics used the ACT test scores as the best proxy for college and career readiness. They found third-grade reading had the highest correlation of any factor, far more than parental educational attainment, poverty, single-parent households, suspension rates, income, unemployment and teen pregnancy.

This correlation supports the state’s recent emphasis, through the Read to Achieve initiative, on having every child reading on grade level by the end of third grade. Research shows there is a remarkable and disproportionate amount of reading growth that takes place between early kindergarten and third grade and that third grade is that critical juncture when learning to read becomes reading to learn. The importance of these early grades – and frankly pre-K – cannot be overstated. Students who are not reading at grade level by the time they enter fourth grade sometimes never recover. Clearly the N.C. Senate understood that when it championed Read to Achieve, which makes its proposed cuts to teacher assistants even more perplexing.

Unless you still have a child in school, you may not be aware of what TA’s do each day. In addition to their traditional role of assisting the teachers in the classroom, both with lesson planning and instruction, and often providing some consistency when a teacher needs to be out, on any given hour of the day teacher assistants are: Reading tutors. Math coaches. First responders. Bus drivers. Playground monitors. Parent communicators. Hug givers. Teacher-sanity savers. And that’s not even during assessments week!

Teachers are performing heroically every day, educating a more diverse student population to higher standards than ever before. They are teaching children from communities where poverty is increasing at an alarming rate, even in more prosperous counties. Many schools are woefully under-resourced, forcing some teachers to rely on web fundraising to buy school supplies to supplement what they buy out of their own pockets.

Knowing what we do about the importance of these early years and how stretched our classroom teachers already feel, is this really the time to remove valuable support and take away resources from the classroom? It defies logic. The upcoming budget conference between the House and Senate presents an opportunity to reverse course.

Keith Poston is the President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

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