Number crunch in schools

April 17, 2013 

At the same time Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget seeks to eliminate teacher assistants in the second and third grades – a preposterous idea to anyone who has spent time in an elementary school classroom – a group of state senators now wants to eliminate limits on class sizes in kindergarten through third grade.

We must hope that cooler heads and experienced teachers prevail. Proponents of eliminating the limits offer several rationalizations, none of them good enough and some of them suspicious, given Republican lawmakers’ attacks on public school teachers in the past.

They say that, without limits, each school district will have more freedom in how to use state money for teacher positions. Unfortunately, that “freedom” would tempt low-wealth districts most affected by state budget cuts to raise class sizes just to make ends meet. It’s the poor school systems, already struggling to meet the needs of disadvantaged kids, that will be hurt the most if the state cuts back on the number of teachers it pays for.

Questionable ‘pros’

Proponents also say that eliminating size limits would let school districts pack classes full of students who aren’t struggling so they can create smaller classes for kids who need more attention. That type of segregation in the early grades would be of little help to kids who may be lagging, so many of whom are struggling because of a lack of support at home. They need the interaction with their better-prepared peers in the reasonably sized classrooms the current law provides.

So why are Republican lawmakers and the governor aiming public education in exactly the wrong direction – toward larger classes with fewer assistants? It makes no sense.

Any legislator who is considering this class-size issue and the elimination of teacher assistants should not even think of casting a vote without visiting an elementary school classroom for a substantial period of time.

Those who have the idea that assistants are some kind of “extra” benefit in public schools don’t know what they’re talking about. Teacher assistants allow teachers the opportunity to focus on differentiated learning, on projects, on specific course work, on parental meetings – not to mention a little time to attend to the mountains of paperwork and individual student assessments now required of public educators.

Try it yourselves

Assistants work hard all day, every day, and without them, underpaid and overworked teachers likely would leave the profession in even greater numbers than they do now.

Lawmakers should ask themselves: How long could I manage, much less educate, two dozen 5- and 6-year-olds for even one day without heading to the parking lot for parts unknown?

The early school years are formative and vitally important. A child who gets off to a bad start sometimes takes years to regain his or her footing in school, if ever. Many studies show that a child still behind in third grade, one of the grades targeted here, is unlikely ever to catch up. Increasing the size of third-grade classes or eliminating their assistants is just foolhardy.

One great teacher can make a difference with a struggling child. And one great assistant can do the same. And they do it now in a state that has dropped from the national average in teacher pay just a few years ago to near the embarrassing and demoralizing bottom.

Republicans in charge on Jones Street clearly don’t have much enthusiasm for investing more in public education, yet they talk repeatedly of how their education plans will somehow attract a better caliber of teacher. Larger class sizes, fewer assistants, an end to tenure and lousy pay are quite the magnet.

Given that studies show real differences in the quality of learning when class sizes are between 15 and 17 students, Republicans could make their mark on education by investing more in teachers and teacher assistants and boldly aiming to lower the numbers of students in classes, not raise them.

Now that would be a Republican revolution worthy of support.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service