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Teaching Assistants Put Under Microscope in UK, Losing Jobs in US

September 06, 2009 07:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A U.K. study disputes the value of teaching assistants, prompting questions about the pitfalls of extra help and concerns over the financial cost to school districts.

Progress Thwarted?

"The more support pupils received, the less progress they made," the authors of a U.K. study concluded when comparing the impacts of teaching assistants (TA) on primary and secondary student test scores in the 2005/06 and 2007/08 school years. According to Judy Friedberg in an article for The Guardian, there has been a sharp increase in the number of TAs employed by U.K. schools over the past several years, but the study, performed by the Institute of Education with support from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, has caused some to question the strategy.

The study found some positive attributes of teaching assistants, including that they worked with students who otherwise would have been distracting and "disruptive, leaving teachers free to work with the rest of the class." As for why students working with TAs didn't progress as much as their peers who didn't work with TAs, "such children spent less time being taught by the teacher," Friedberg explains.

Teaching Assistant Cuts in the US

In the U.S, recession-influenced school budget cuts have trickled down to teaching assistants, according to Sarah A. Reid of The Fayettville Observer. Throughout North Carolina, districts "spent the summer scrambling to cut millions from their budgets—from teaching assistant jobs to varsity letter jackets," Reid reports. Parents and students have been holding fundraisers to counteract the cuts, but with dozens of teacher layoffs and rampant unemployment, "[p]arents may not be as able to help fill in the gaps at their children's schools," Reid writes.

In New York City public schools, it had been common for parents to raise the money necessary to hire assistants "to help teachers with reading, writing, tying shoelaces or supervising recess," Winnie Hu reports in The New York Times. But in July, the New York City teachers union and Mayor Michael Bloomberg "ordered an end" to the practice. Now, assistants must be employed by the Department of Education, "their positions included in official school budgets," and they can earn almost twice as much as assistants hired independently. Parents were outraged, particularly because of overcrowded classrooms where assistants are seen as a necessity.

Background: UK teaching assistants

According to OpenLearn Learning Space, TAs can be volunteers without "specific training" but typically "have relevant informal experience, transferable abilities and intuitive skills." In a discussion of the value of TAs, the OpenLearn article notes that "[i]n Northern Ireland a recent chief inspector's report stated that, 'Evidence from inspection highlights the positive contribution made by classroom assistants.'" But the author acknowledges that despite "enthusiasm for additional support" in the classroom, "little attention is given to how this actually works," and "learning support staff have been introduced into classrooms without clear research evidence that they can make a difference to children's learning."

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