The Value of Teaching Assistants

Robust debate about teaching assistants (TAs) in the pedagogical community has forced schools to consider seriously the return on investment of hiring second adults in classrooms. The findings on the subject have been nuanced, which has led to confusion in the general public.

Several studies have found that TAs were not necessarily having the desired effect on student achievement. The analysis has faulted the way TAs are being used rather than the value of a second instructor. When schools employ TAs to help children learn, rather than behave and complete tasks, the results have been more evident.

For example, a 2016 study by the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research found “strong and consistent evidence of positive contributions of teaching assistants… with larger effects on outcomes for minority students than for white students.”

A survey in England found that 95% of principals believed teaching assistants added value to classrooms. Teachers surveyed reported that TAs help reduce stress and disruption in their classes.

TAs a Boon if Used Correctly
What appears clear from the research is that well-trained TAs support instruction when engaged as extensions of lead teachers, helping pupils develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning. Student performance tends not to improve when TAs are employed as police officers or task masters, or if they replace the lead teacher when providing instruction to low-performing students.

The Education Endowment Foundation in England, where teacher assistants comprise a quarter of the school workforce, recommends that teacher assistants be employed in small group and one-on-one instruction that is structured, brief, regular and sustained. A 20-50-minute program three-to-five times a week and continued for at least two months is, according to the report, the sweet spot for TA instruction.

Other evidence-based recommendations include:

  • Extensive training for TAs.
  • Intervention with structured lesson plans and clearly defined goals.
  • Interventions tailored to student needs based on student assessments.
  • Intervention that reinforces classroom work.

TAs Used Strategically in Promise Neighborhood
During the 2016-17 school year, at the request of the principal at Sanders-Clyde, Charleston Promise Neighborhood provided teaching assistants to three 1st grade classrooms and one 2nd grade classroom. TAs were deployed in ways consistent with the empirical evidence supporting student outcomes, supplementing certified teachers to meet the individualized needs of students. They focused their attention on helping students improve their performance in math and reading.

The TAs delivered instruction to students in small group settings, while the certified teacher worked with a different group of students on academic content, classroom structure, comprehension, etc.  All teaching assistants worked under the supervision and direction of the classroom teacher.

“The results have reinforced the value of TAs in the classroom when supporting the work of the lead teachers,” said Sherrie Snipes-Williams, CEO of Charleston Promise Neighborhood.

Sixty-one percent of 1st graders at Sanders-Clyde met the 2016-17 MAP math growth target, compared to 32% in 2015-16.  Additionally, the 2nd grade classroom with a teaching assistant was the only 2nd grade classroom to demonstrate increased growth in math and reading in 2016-17 as compared to the previous year.

As a side benefit, classroom disruptions decreased from 32 to just 9 after just one school quarter of utilizing teaching assistants in these classrooms.

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